Future Reflections Spring/Summer 1994, Vol. 13 No. 2



It would be hard to pick a specific event from which to date the national Braille literacy campaign we are now waging in this country. Since Braille bills (laws which promote the right of blind children to learn Braille) have become our primary weapon in this war against Braille illiteracy, one logical date would be the first attempt (initiated, of course, by the National Federation of the Blind) to pass such a Braille bill through a state legislature (Maryland, 1986). Although this attempt failed (Maryland would not pass a Braille bill until 1992), other NFB state affiliates immediately saw the possibilities and started pressing for Braille legislation in their respective states. A Model Braille Bill was soon developed by the NFB; and today, eight years later, 25 states have enacted Braille literacy legislation.

On the other hand, the legislative strategy clearly came after years of other campaign activity; the publication of article after article year after year in Future Reflections and the Braille Monitor; confrontations and dialogue with the professionals who set and implemented Braille policy; testimony at public hearings; and negotiations for Braille in case-by-case IEP meetings and due process hearings. The establishment in 1993 of the Braille Readers are Leaders Contest by the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children was a deliberate attempt to help turn the tide of rising Braille illiteracy; as was the founding of the National Association to Promote the Use of Braille (NAPUB), which celebrates its tenth anniversary at the 1994 NFB Convention.

Whichever event and year we might choose to mark the beginning of the current war against Braille illiteracy, there is one thing about which there is no doubt: that the National Federation of the Blind has been the unchallenged leader in this war. We were the ones calling national attention to the problem when others were ignoring or denying it, and we have been the leader in formulating and implementing the solutions to the problem. 

In January, 1994, at the NFB Washington, D.C., Seminar, we further demonstrated our determination and will to establish Braille literacy as a national priority: we called for a national Blind Person's Literacy Rights and Education Act. (The Washington Seminar, by the way, is an event in which members of the Federation gather at our nation's capital to discuss with our senators and congressmen the year's legislative priorities for the blind. Fact sheets are distributed and discussed at an orientation meeting, then teams of NFB members disperse over a three-day period to present these priorities to congressmen and -women.)

Although we have made progress with our state Braille bills, the fact remains that it took us eight years to pass legislation in 25 states. We must, if we can, speed up the process so that children in the other 25 states do not have to wait another eight years for Braille instruction. Besides, Braille literacy is a national problem which cries out for a national commitment; and, with parts of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) up for reauthorization, 1994-1995 is the time to do it!

Here is the text of the fact sheet distributed at the 1994 NFB Washington Seminar:


BACKGROUND: The National Literacy Act of 1991 defines literacy as an individual's ability to read, write, and speak in English and compute and solve problems at levels of proficiency necessary to function on the job and in society; to achieve one's goals; and to develop one's knowledge and potential. This definition points up the critical importance of emphasizing high-quality literacy training programs for all Americans. For blind Americans, especially school-age youth, the need is no less critical. Yet surprisingly few students who are blind or visually impaired receive instruction in Braille as a part of their elementary and secondary education programs. 

Blind students are generally defined as those who see less than ten percent of what is seen by someone with normal eyesight. During the present school year there are approximately 50,204 such children enrolled at the elementary and secondary levels in the U. S. Only 4,385 of these students read Braille. The vast majority use print materials even in situations in which reading with sight is an unrewarding, never-ending daily struggle. Educators often resist teaching Braille until students are unable to make any progress at all in school by using print. As a result, Braille has become not the method of choice but the method of last resort. 

EXISTING LAW: The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) contains federal standards for special education and related services to be provided to children with disabilities throughout the U.S. The most important standard is that each such child is entitled to a free appropriate public education. Education agencies, both state and local, receive Federal funding to assist in meeting this mandate. When special education services are provided to a child, there must be an Individualized Education Program (IEP) to describe the needs of the child for special instruction, the services to be provided, and the goals to be achieved. The law also requires the use of qualified personnel to deliver services. Federal funds are available to support personnel training programs. 

The components of an appropriate education are not strictly defined in IDEA. As a result it is easy and tempting for school personnel to determine a child's needs largely on the basis of the school's capacity (or lack of capacity) to provide special instruction or services. This being the case, blind students who may have even a limited ability to read print are guided toward receiving instruction in that form instead of using Braille. Procedural safeguards, including the right to challenge decisions through administrative and court appeals, exist under IDEA, but such proceedings are time-consuming and costly in financial and educational resources. 

PROPOSED LEGISLATION: Congress should amend the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to include provisions for strengthening programs of Braille literacy instruction and the cost-effective transcription of instructional materials into Braille. This proposal, entitled the Blind Persons' Literacy Rights and Education Act, is patterned after laws with a similar purpose which twenty-one states have now enacted. The following provisions are included: (1) definitions of the terms blind or visually impaired children and Braille Literacy Plan, including a presumption in favor of teaching Braille for such children; (2) specification of requirements for a Braille Literacy Plan to be included in the IEP of each child whose vision restriction meets the definition of blind or visually impaired; (3) specification of standards and procedures to insure that qualified personnel are provided for Braille instruction; and (4) specification of purchasing conditions to insure that each edition of a text or other material obtained is also supplied in an electronically stored digital text format. 

The Braille Literacy Plan required for each blind student will assure an individualized literacy skills assessment. Braille for many may not be the exclusive literacy tool, but its potential usefulness even to those who can also read some printed matter must not be overlooked. To the extent necessary as determined and stated in the IEP, Braille instruction would be provided so that the literacy skills of blind and visually impaired students are generally on a par with literacy skills achieved by sighted students of comparable ability and grade level. Wider availability of Braille materials and competent instruction in their use will be essential in achieving this goal. Therefore, provisions for teacher training and cost-effective provision of texts on standard computer diskettes have been included. 

NEED FOR LEGISLATION: It is the policy of our nation as stated in the National Education Goals that by the year 2000 every adult American will be literate and will possess the knowledge and skills necessary to compete in a global economy and exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. In order for blind adults to achieve this goal, literacy instruction must be strengthened for children. The direction of current trends and educational programming shows that this goal will not be achieved without deliberate corrective action. According to official child count figures supplied annually by state and local education agencies, thirty-one percent of the blind students at the elementary and secondary levels are nonreaders, and that percentage increases every year. The number who read Braille is correspondingly declining. 

The experience gathered in many states over several years shows that a legislative response is needed to reverse this trend of growing illiteracy among blind school-age youth. Amendments to IDEA, expected to be considered by Congress during 1994, would provide the most appropriate vehicle for this urgently needed remedial legislation. By passing the  -Blind Persons' Literacy Rights and Education Act, Congress can provide the leadership to ensure that blind students graduate from our nation's schools literate and armed with the necessary skills to be first-class citizens of our society.