Future Reflections Summer 1992, Vol. 11 No. 3


                        by Sharon Maneki

     On May 12, 1992, a group of jubilant Federationists traveled to Annapolis to take part in the ceremony in which Governor William Donald Schaefer signed the Literacy Rights and Education Act For Blind and Visually Impaired Students into Law. Delegate Sheila Hixson and Senator Arthur Dorman, the bill's prime sponsors, also took part in the ceremony to share in our victory. This was a momentous occasion not only for the blind of Maryland, but also for the blind of the nation.

     Under this law: a.) a blind or visually impaired student's need for Braille shall be presumed when developing the Individualized Education Program; b.) the student's current and future literacy needs must be considered; c.) Braille is not required when it has been determined that the student does not need it; d.) requirements for the certification and recertification of vision teachers shall be strengthened; and e.) the Maryland State Department of Education shall coordinate the availability of textbooks in non-visually accessible formats.

     The road to victory was a long and difficult one. The National Federation of the Blind is a pro-active organization that responds to the needs of blind persons and never evades its responsibility. Throughout the 1980s, we listened bitterly as blind adults who grew up as visually impaired children expressed frustration at their lack of Braille skills. We shared the anguish of parents whose pleas for instruction in Braille for their blind children were denied by vision teachers and school officials. We could not understand why Barbara and John Cheadle had to go through two years of due process procedures in order to obtain Braille instruction for their son Charles. It took concerted efforts by parents of blind children and blind persons in the National Federation of the Blind to correct this unacceptable situation. As it turned out, much persistence would be needed to change the attitudes of educators and to win the hearts of legislators about the importance of Braille.

     One of the best vehicles for change is legislation. In 1986, the NFB of Maryland was the first affiliate to ask its state legislature to enact legislation to ensure Braille literacy for blind and visually impaired students. This legislation quickly became embroiled in controversy due to the opposition of the Maryland School for the Blind.

     Although this initial effort was unsuccessful, we continued to take every opportunity to bring the Braille issue to the attention of legislators, educators and the general public. Day by day, year by year, we made progress. By 1991, we had changed attitudes sufficiently so that consumers and educators could begin to negotiate the terms for a literacy bill, and we proceeded to have a literacy bill introduced in the 1992 session of the General Assembly. House and Senate Versions of the bill were introduced with 32 House sponsors and 13 Senate sponsors.

     Then, prior to the hearing of the Senate version of the literacy bill, we learned that the Department of Education was proposing an amendment which would eliminate one of the bill's major points. The Maryland State Department of Education argued that the "presumption of Braille" clause of the bill conflicted with the federal law requirement to develop an Individual Education Program for each student. We argued that this clause was not a violation of federal law since Braille was not required if the IEP team found it unnecessary. The Attorney General of Maryland issued an opinion which said in part: "...the bill does not prevent development of individualized education programs, or limit the variety of services available for those programs." With this ruling in hand, we persisted with our efforts well beyond the committee hearings and ceased our activity only when the final victorious vote had been recorded.

     While individuals can sometimes cause change, it takes collective action to move mountains. Success with a Braille literacy bill in one state provides the impetus for the passage of similar bills in other states. The successful passage of literacy bills in Kansas, Texas and several other states helped us achieve our success in Maryland. The Maryland Attorney General's opinion on the presumption issue will help affiliates in other states win this argument.

     The advantage of a national organization to develop model legislation and to assist its state affiliates with securing the passage of legislation is extremely important. Just as we developed a model white cane law which was passed in every state in the 1950s and 1960s, we will pass Braille literacy legislation in every state in the 1990s.

     As we move from the lawmaking phase to the law enforcement phase of our struggle for literacy in Maryland, we must work to develop regulations to determine which students should learn Braille and to establish standards of Braille competency for vision teachers. We can only hope that the foundation of cooperation and mutual respect that we have begun to build with Maryland educators will make the accomplishment of this phase easier and faster than the first.

     We cannot abandon our responsibility to ensure that blind and visually impaired children are adequately taught the skills of literacy. Maryland parents who ask for Braille instruction for their blind children now have the force of law to back up their request. Through the collective action of the National Federation of the Blind, every blind and visually impaired child will regain his right to literacy and education.