Future Reflections Spring 1999, Vol. 18 No. 1


Braille, Print, or Both?


From the Editor: I’ve been asked by parents and teachers to print something about the nuts and bolts of how to evaluate a child for print and/or Braille. In light of the 1997 IDEA amendments, which require that an evaluation is done before an IEP team can decide to not provide Braille instruction to a blind or visually impaired child, this seemed like a good suggestion. I decided to reprint portions of the guidelines used by teachers of the visually impaired in my state (Maryland). Even though I served on the task force that developed the guidelines (and therefore admit I might have some bias), I do think they are about as good as any I’ve seen.

The guidelines were developed by the Maryland State Department of Education, Division of Special Education, in consultation with the Mid-South Regional Resource Center, University of Kentucky. The document is called Selection of Reading and Writing Media for Students with Visual Impairments: Braille, Print, or Both? A Resource Document, December, 1992. It is a 24-page document (not counting the preface and contents page) with appendices that include: “A. Definitions, B. Assessment Questions for Families and Students, C. Functional Vision Assessment Questions, and D. Reading List.” I have reprinted the preface and parts IV and V of the five-part body of the document.

A limited number of free print copies of the complete Maryland Resource document are available from:

National Organization of Parents of Blind Children
1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230

Other print/Braille assessment kits and evaluation guidelines are available from: American Printing House for the Blind, 1-800-223-1839, website: <www:aph.org> and the Texas School for the Blind, (512) 454-8631, website: <www.tsbvi.edu/publications/>.

Here now are the excerpts from Selection of Reading and Writing Media for Students with Visual Impairments: Braille, Print, or Both? A Resource Document:


In recent years, the use of Braille by school-age children who are visually impaired has become the focus of advocacy groups and educators. Many individuals have come to believe there has been a decline in the use of Braille, and see this as a cause of illiteracy among blind and visually impaired students.

To address concerns that had been raised in Maryland, the State Department of Education established an advisory panel in November, 1991, to develop guidelines to be used by Admission, Review, and Dismissal/Individualized Education Program Committees (ARD/IEP Committees) when determining reading and writing media for students with visual impairments. At the same time, a task force was formed by the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland to draft legislation related to literacy for students who are blind and visually impaired. These efforts took place concurrently for most of the 1991-92 school year. Participants in both of these activities included members of the Department, local school systems, the Maryland School for the Blind, the National Federation of the Blind, the American Council for the Blind, and consumers.

In May, 1992, Governor William Donald Schaefer signed H.B. 859, Blind Student’s Literacy Rights and Education Act. This legislation creates a presumption that proficiency in Braille is essential to the literacy of blind and visually impaired students and imposes certain procedural requirements on the decision-making process beyond what is contained in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and COMAR 13A.05.01. [Editor’s note: with the passage of the 1997 IDEA amendments, this statement is no longer true. IDEA now has a Braille literacy provision, too.] The primary purpose of this document is to provide guidance and direction to local education agencies and state operated programs for implementation of this legislation. 

Additionally, it is intended that this document will increase the awareness level about Braille among school personnel, provide a mechanism that will allow for consistency among local education agencies and state operated programs when making decisions about a student’s reading and writing media, and assist ARD/IEP Committee members in their educational decision-making.

While literacy involves more than reading and writing, these two functions remain critical keys for achieving literacy. This document focuses on reading and writing, assuming that other functions will be addressed as needed. The document also has a strong focus toward Braille. This emphasis is not intended to discourage other options available to students who are blind or visually impaired. These options are widely accepted and used, and are generally familiar to professionals and the general public. It is hoped that this emphasis will counterbalance what is perceived by some as a long-standing preference for print and that the use of Braille will be more positively received by school personnel and families.

IV. Assessment Process

The following guidelines are designed to assist in the assessment of students who are readers, or who have the cognitive ability to become readers. The ARD/IEP Committee must have the medical and functional vision data and be aware of future reading needs. Other information about cognitive and affective development, learning style, and motor skills will assist in the development of appropriate individualized teaching strategies. Assessments should be conducted in a prompt and timely manner. Reading and writing instruction in Braille and/or print should never be delayed, but should be initiated on an interim basis as necessary.

Medical Information:

Current medical information about the eye condition should include etiology, diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, best corrected near and distance acuities, and visual fields. A low vision report may provide helpful information about: contrast sensitivity, binocularity, eye fatigue, recommended visual environment (e.g., glare reduction and illumination adjustments), ocular-motor skills, and prescribed optical and non-optical low vision devices.

Medical information about additional disabilities may be relevant. Some physical conditions and cognitive impairments may affect the student’s ability to read and write. Medication can impact visual and/or tactual functioning.

Functional Vision Information:

A comprehensive functional vision assessment will be the cornerstone of the overall assessment. In order to obtain the most complete information possible, the team should work closely with family, student, classroom teachers, and related service providers to evaluate the following factors:

Physical Factors: Working distance from page, endurance, fluctuating vision, fatigue, headache, backache, eye strain, stamina, posture, arm strength, and head position provide information on the functional use of vision.

Environmental Factors: The student’s reaction to natural and artificial lighting, glare, color, and contrast sensitivity are critical to performance expectations.

Print Reading Factors: Performance demands created by print size, print style, spacing, clarity, contrast, and reading speed and accuracy both silent and oral must be part of the total assessment.

Handwriting Factors: Legibility, pen type, and writing and reading speed and accuracy provide information concerning a student’s ability to carry out functional handwriting demands.

Low Vision Technological Factors: Dependence on CCTV, hand-held magnifiers, and other support mechanisms provide further data concerning a student’s functional vision.

Note: In evaluating prereaders, more emphasis must be placed on the physical and environmental factors plus available medical information.  

Projected Reading and Writing Needs:

An assessment of reading and writing needs will carefully consider how a student will function in upcoming years as print size diminishes and reading demands increase. The appropriate reading and writing media must provide for effective personal communication and full participation in community, vocational, and social settings.  

General Educational Information:

Cognitive Development: A student’s concept development; visual, tactual, and auditory discrimination; perception; and language development should be evaluated to determine how the student is functioning relative to peers in the areas of reading and writing.

Affective Development: Consideration of socialization skills, recreational and vocational interests, plus motivation for learning will help the ARD/IEP Committee gain insight into how the student’s affective development is impacting the ability to perform general educational and specific visual tasks over time.

Fine Motor Skills: Consideration should be given to the student’s current tactual discrimination, hand and finger dexterity, finger isolation, finger touch, finger strength, and page turning ability. These aspects of physical development assist in selecting strategies for teaching reading and writing, either print or Braille.

V. Decision-Making Process

The decision to teach Braille, print, or both will take into consideration all of the information gathered during the assessment. The assessment information will help the team select from among the following options. Students may be taught to use:

1. Braille

2. Print

3. Braille, complemented with print

4. Print, complemented with Braille

The remainder of this section provides examples of the kinds of assessment data that will assist a team in choosing one of the four options. Of course, assessment descriptions provided below are somewhat generic, i.e., not all parts of the descriptions will apply to each student. Since students are individuals, not everyone will fit neatly into one of the four categories. In reviewing these descriptions, team members should ask which factors best describe the individual student.

It is also important to remember that when the selected option includes both Braille and print, the amount of usage with one or the other will vary with each student. Student input should be obtained so that the team decision is sensitive to student preference and concerns. Additionally, as a student’s vision or visual demands change over time, the usage of one medium over another may change.

However, even though a student may use one medium more than another at a given point in time, it is critical that the student develop proficient use of both. For the preschool student, this will mean that opportunities for visual and tactual activities are provided equally. Later, the amount of time teaching or practicing with a certain medium will depend on all assessment data and the current needs of the student. The team must continually focus on the ultimate outcome that the student will be able to choose and use the medium of preference or the medium most functional for a given situation.

Which Students Should Learn Braille?

Medical Factors: Student is totally blind, nearly so, or is expected to experience rapid loss of vision.

Physical Factors: An additional disability does not interfere with the ability to learn Braille.

Environmental Factors: Adjustments in natural and artificial lighting do not enhance student ability to read print.

Print Reading Factors: If the student can read print at all, reading is extremely slow and laborious, even when all print factors have been adjusted for maximum efficiency.

Handwriting Factors: Student cannot read own handwriting to carry out functional handwriting demands.

Low Vision Technological Factors: Student cannot read print at any comfort level, even using a CCTV or other non-portable devices.

Which Students Should Learn Print?

Medical Factors: Student has a stable eye condition, or has a prognosis of continued improvement.

Physical Factors: Student experiences no fatigue or discomfort from reading. The nature of an additional disability prohibits tactual reading. Student, when systematically assessed, exhibits inability to process tactual information with any accuracy and facility.

Environmental Factors: Student does not require extensive modifications in natural or artificial lighting in order to read comfortably for extended periods of time.

Print Reading Factors: Student reads regular print comfortably and efficiently, in most settings and circumstances. Reading rate and accuracy is commensurate with student’s expected grade level. Performance level is commensurate with overall ability. Student can use print easily for all academic, nonacademic, and vocational needs.

Handwriting factors: Student has legible handwriting and can easily read own and others’ notes at a comfortable distance, even after some time has elapsed.

Low Vision Technological Factors: Student reads regular print without low vision devices and comfortably uses pocket-size magnification for reading fine print, such as the telephone book, medicine labels, dictionary, and encyclopedia.

Which Students Should Learn Braille Complemented with Print?

Medical Factors: Student has diagnosis or prognosis of severe visual impairment, has a degenerative eye condition, or has severely restricted visual fields.

Physical Factors: Student holds book close to face, can read only large print, or regularly suffers from headaches, fatigue, or visual discomfort after reading. Student exhibits strong preference for tactual exploration and learning. Student can read using an electronic low vision aid, but with effort; cannot read with hand-held magnifiers with any reasonable speed or comprehension. Student is consistently unable independently to complete assigned school work in a timely manner.

Environmental Factors: Glare and/or lighting variations make reading difficult or impossible in many settings.

Print Reading Factors: Student’s print reading speed is far below that of other students of the same development level. Student consistently demonstrates inaccuracy when reading. Student has difficult in reading a variety of print styles or print on colored background.

Handwriting Factors: Student can only read notes when written with a broad tip pen 1-2 inches high and may have difficulty accurately reading what was written, or can only read notes using a CCTV or other non-portable devices.

Low Vision Technological Factors: Student can write only when using a CCTV or other non-portable devices.

Which Students Should Learn Print Complemented With Braille?

Medical Factors: Student has a currently stable eye condition but is at risk of eventual deterioration, has a slowly progressive eye condition, has restricted visual fields, or has fluctuating vision.

Physical Factors: Student posture during reading results in back and neck strain or headaches. Student complains of watering eyes, blurring, or other visual discomfort after extensive reading or writing tasks. Student cannot complete assignments without relying on other individuals or technology for reading and/or note taking.

Environmental Factors: Glare and/or lighting variations make reading difficult or impossible in some settings.

Print Reading Factors: Student cannot read regular print, easily and accurately, for an appropriate length of time in order to complete tasks throughout the day. Student may read material in both regular and large print formats. Student reads primarily in large print format combined with optical or electronic low vision devices. Student is unable to maintain a reading rate commensurate with grade level work demands. Student depends on extraordinarily large print for accessing practical information such as oral report notes, grocery lists, names and addresses, etc. In preschool, observations should include how a student approaches learning, i.e., a visual versus tactual approach.

Handwriting Factors: Student has difficulty producing and reading own or other’s handwriting.

Low Vision Technological Factors: Student may use CCTV or other non-portable devices for visual materials such as maps and diagrams.