Future Reflections        Summer 2013

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The Letter of the Law: How Decisive Correspondence Can Provide Greater Literacy Opportunities for Blind and Visually Impaired Children

by Krystal Guillory, M.Ed., TVI, NCLB

Krystal GuilloryFrom the Editor: For decades the National Federation of the Blind has fought to ensure that blind children receive proper instruction in the use of Braille. On June 19, 2013, the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) of the US Department of Education issued an open letter about Braille instruction to professionals and policymakers across the country. This "Dear Colleague" letter marks a decisive moment in the Federation's long struggle, and it is a tool that will help parents and teachers fight for Braille instruction in the years ahead. In this article Krystal Guillory, a teacher of blind students in Louisiana, summarizes the letter and explains its significance. You can read the letter in full at  <www2.ed.gov/policy/speced/guid/idea/memosdcltrs/index.html>.

Is it more important to obey the letter or the spirit of the law? Discussions of this question can grow highly charged, as those with opposing viewpoints become increasingly insistent that their opinions are correct. In the interpretation of the United States Constitution, there are the strict constructionists and their opponents--those who insist that too literal an interpretation of the framers' words is out of step with the postmodern era. In the realm of theology, differing views abound on the interpretation and meaning of the Scripture.

These vociferous and lively debates are a healthy part of our democratic society. However, they are not always helpful, and they can be the agents of confusion. They can erect needless, potentially harmful barriers of miscommunication and division. There are instances when a presiding entity must wade through the noise and crosstalk to provide clarification of intent.

That is exactly what a June 19, 2013, Dear Colleague letter from the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) of the US Department of Education has done with respect to Braille instruction in programs for students from birth to twenty-one years of age. The letter has been heralded as a potential game-changer by those with an understanding of the critical importance of Braille literacy. As a teacher, I appreciate the letter's direct, no-nonsense language, which I will highlight in the following paragraphs.

What Does the Letter Say?

The Dear Colleague letter is intended to provide guidance to states and public agencies, reaffirming the importance of Braille as a literacy tool for blind and visually impaired students. It clarifies the circumstances in which Braille instruction should be provided and reiterates the scope of an evaluation required to guide the decisions of IEP teams. The letter also identifies resources that are designed to strengthen the capacity of state and local personnel to meet the needs of students who are blind or visually impaired.

In essence, fitting it all into the proverbial nutshell, OSERS is not seeking to change policy or comment on newly adopted legislation. Rather, this correspondence speaks to requirements under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) that have been in effect for nearly two decades. Within the framework of IDEA, the letter calls state and local education agencies to account for their decisions to provide or withhold Braille instruction for blind and visually impaired students. It states clearly the pivotal role played by a child's IEP team, which of course includes his or her first teachers, the parents.

The letter begins by noting the indispensable role of Braille as a literacy tool by and for the blind. It goes on to cite the IDEA 1997 requirements governing the IEP team's decision-making process as to whether or not a child will receive Braille instruction. The language makes clear that not only a student's current reading and writing skills and appropriate learning media must be considered, but his or her future needs as well. This point is of particular importance for children with progressive vision loss--those who may not seem to need Braille at present, but whose prognosis indicates diminishing field and/or visual acuity, children who will certainly need Braille in the months and years to come.

Bolstering the Law

Keep in mind that these requirements are not new. They have been in US law since 1997. The Dear Colleague letter also reminds us that blind and visually impaired students are protected by two pieces of legislation in addition to IDEA--namely, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Nevertheless, either through willful circumvention or unintentional oversight, some state and local education agencies, and, in some instances, families themselves, have ignored these provisions.

One notable way the provisions of the law are circumvented is through the "Cadillac of services" argument. School districts that use this jargon claim that, while they are required to buy a car for a student with disabilities (that is, provide services), they are not required to give the student a Cadillac. This approach has been used to delay or deny services and/or the purchase of assistive technology such as a Braille notetaker. The OSERS letter gives parents and other advocates ammunition against this potentially harmful viewpoint by reaffirming the right of blind and visually impaired students to equal access to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) and by noting the role of Braille in the same.

"Despite the wide range of vision difficulties and the varying adaptations to vision loss in the population of blind and visually impaired students," the letter states, "Braille has long been a very effective reading and writing medium for many of them. Research has shown that knowledge of Braille provides numerous tangible and intangible benefits, including increased likelihood of obtaining productive employment and heightened self-esteem. Given these benefits, it is important that states and their public agencies ensure the appropriate implementation of the IDEA requirement regarding Braille instruction." The National Federation of the Blind does not view Braille instruction and the equal access it brings as a proverbial Cadillac. The above quote indicates in no uncertain terms that the United States Department of Education is in agreement with this belief.

As stated in its purpose, the letter also highlights several resources by which Braille and other educational materials can be procured for blind and visually impaired students. These include the National Instructional Materials Access Center (NIMAC), the American Printing House for the Blind (APH), and Bookshare. The specifics regarding funding and other logistical details given in the letter are outside the scope of this article. However, because of the intersection of Braille and technology (e.g., refreshable Braille displays, Braille embossers), we are living in an age in which access to Braille materials has never been greater. All things being equal, future access to a wide range of instructional materials in Braille promises to increase and become more timely in the coming years.

The Scope of the Challenge

Though these developments are indeed heartening, the sad fact is that only about ten percent of our blind and visually impaired students are receiving Braille instruction--a distressing statistic to be sure. What good are instructional materials in Braille to kids who cannot read Braille?

In conclusion, the OSERS Dear Colleague letter states, "Braille is a very effective reading and writing medium for many blind and visually impaired persons, and research has shown that knowledge of Braille provides numerous tangible and intangible benefits. Therefore, it is imperative that IEP teams for blind and visually impaired students provide for instruction in Braille and the use of Braille for those students, unless, based on a thorough and rigorous evaluation, the IEP team determines that instruction in Braille or the use of Braille is not appropriate for a particular student."

While this language is very clear, there may be entities that attempt to deny Braille instruction to children who need it. One must arm oneself with the knowledge necessary to combat such injustice. The members of the National Federation of the Blind know firsthand the transformative power of Braille and the doors thrown open to those who are truly literate. Make no mistake; Braille is literacy for the blind.

As an educator, it is imperative that I endeavor to ensure equal access for my students. While I have been fortunate to work in very supportive settings, I realize that many of my colleagues throughout the country are not so fortunate. To those parents and teachers battling service denials or delays, I say, "Keep fighting! Never give up." I urge you please to stay connected to the National Federation of the Blind. Our collective action will lead to victory.

I am grateful to the Department of Education for stating so eloquently in an official document what we know to be true. We often say that Braille Rocks! Whether in hardcopy or through the use of refreshable Braille, Braille means equal access to knowledge, a commodity truly without price.

I will close by saying it yet again, and I hope you will join me in doing so--Braille ROCKS!

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