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Public Statements

Letter to Arne Duncan, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education

Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) led 26 Senators in sending a bipartisan letter to U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan calling on the Department to ensure students with blindness or visual impairment are provided access to braille literacy. Current regulation does not provide school districts adequate guidance in developing, reviewing and revising the individualized education program (IEP) for students with blindness or visual impairment. The letter urges the Secretary to engage stakeholder groups to write new regulation for the IEP of students with blindness or visual impairment, and give guidance to school districts on providing instruction in braille reading and writing.

The letter is supported by the American Council of the Blind, American Foundation for the Blind, American Printing House for the Blind, Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired, Helen Keller National Center, National Council of State Agencies for the Blind, and the National Federation of the Blind.

"As we know from research, literacy gaps are difficult to close and result in other negative academic and social outcomes. Students with blindness or a visual impairment who are inappropriately denied or delayed braille instruction find themselves struggling in middle and high school, falling further behind their sighted peers," the Senators wrote in the letter to Secretary Duncan. "As this achievement gap persists, the student's ability to compete with sighted peers for post-secondary opportunities and employment is significantly compromised. This literacy gap is both unnecessary and preventable."

Fewer than 25% of children who meet the federal definition of blindness are braille readers. Compared to their sighted peers, fewer students with blindness or a visual impairment attend college and those who do make it to college often find themselves underprepared for the challenges they face. Reading and writing in braille is a crucial literacy skill, instruction in these should be provided to students with blindness or a visual impairment who will benefit.

"This is not just a problem for the blind community, this is a problem for our country as a whole," said Senator Patty Murray. "If we allow this to continue, it won't just be one community that falls behind, we will all fall behind together. Making sure that we offer all our kids, regardless of disability, a world-class education is not only a moral obligation, it is an economic imperative for the U.S. to succeed."

Research has shown literacy is critical for success is school, life, and the workforce. For more than 490,000 school age children with a visual disability in the United States, alternative approaches to literacy may be necessary. Without providing these students access to specialized instruction, the grade-level curriculum will soon exceed the student's reading proficiency therefore creating a literacy gap. As we know from research, these gaps are difficult to close and result in other negative academic and social outcomes. As this gap persists, the student's ability to compete with sighted peers for post-secondary opportunities and employment is significantly compromised. Instruction in braille offers students with blindness or a visual impairment a path to college and career readiness, independence, and a productive future. Yet, these outcomes hinge on special educators and parents planning for a lifetime of literacy for the student, whatever the prognosis might be for their vision.

The following Senators signed on to Murray's letter: Senator John Boozman (R-AR), Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI), Senator John Kerry (D-MA), Senator John Rockefeller IV (D-WV), Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Senator Olympia J. Snowe (R-ME), Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), Senator Jack Reed (D-RI), Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), Senator Mark Pryor (D-AR), Senator Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Senator Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-PA), Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Senator Mark Begich (D-AK), Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO), Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Senator Al Franken (D-MN), Senator Christopher Coons (D-DE).

The full text of the letter follows:

Dear Secretary Duncan:

We are writing in reference to the Department of Education's regulation concerning the development, review, and revision of the individualized education program (IEP) for a student with blindness or a visual impairment. We strongly urge the U.S. Department of Education to develop new regulations and provide additional guidance to school districts to ensure students with blindness or a visual impairment are provided braille instruction when the student will benefit.

In reauthorizing the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 2004, the intent of Congress was for braille instruction to be presumed appropriate for all students with blindness or a visual impairment. However, current regulation does not provide school districts adequate guidance in developing, reviewing and revising the IEP. It has come to our attention that in some circumstances, parents and advocates request braille instruction for their child with blindness or low vision but meet resistance from a school-based IEP team member. We believe this is due, in part, to a misunderstanding of the needs of some students with low vision. Regardless of the reason, braille instruction is a crucial literacy skill which should be provided to students with blindness or a visual impairment who would benefit from learning braille.

In statute, Congress acknowledges braille instruction is not appropriate for some students with blindness or a visual impairment. For example, students with blindness or a visual impairment who also have a significant cognitive or developmental disability delaying language acquisition may require alternative literacy approaches, but not necessarily braille. However, we are concerned there are some students who would benefit from braille instruction but are not receiving it.

Instruction in braille closely parallels instruction in print reading. Beginning in kindergarten, instruction focuses on fundamentals such as phonemic awareness, and in later grades continues into higher order skills such as comprehension. For students with blindness entering kindergarten, braille instruction is begun immediately. However, as you know, many students with a visual impairment have a degenerative condition resulting in low vision or blindness during later childhood or adolescence. For many of these students, braille instruction is begun much later, once the student's visual acuity significantly decreases. Often, the result is that the student is unable to access the grade-level curriculum because he or she lacks proficiency in braille.

As we know from research, literacy gaps are difficult to close and result in other negative academic and social outcomes. Students with blindness or a visual impairment who are inappropriately denied or delayed braille instruction find themselves struggling in middle and high school, falling further behind their sighted peers. As this achievement gap persists, the student's ability to compete with sighted peers for post-secondary opportunities and employment is significantly compromised. This literacy gap is both unnecessary and preventable.

We strongly urge the U.S. Department of Education to engage stakeholder groups to develop new IDEA regulations related to the development of an IEP for a student with blindness or a visual impairment. New regulations should carry out the intent of Congress that students with blindness or a visual impairment must receive braille instruction, unless the results of a data based learning media assessment and other appropriate assessments indicate the student will not benefit from braille. The burden should be placed on the IEP team to use evidence from individual student assessment (i.e., data based learning media assessment, functional vision assessment, and other appropriate assessment tools) to negate the presumption created by Congress, that the IEP team "in the case of a child who is blind or visually impaired, provide for instruction in braille and the use of braille unless the IEP team determines, after an evaluation of the child's reading and writing skills, needs, and appropriate reading and writing media (including an evaluation of the child's future needs for instruction in braille or the use of braille), that instruction in braille or the use of braille is not appropriate for the child." This evaluation must include a data based learning media assessment, which would provide data of learning modalities including auditory, visual, and tactual such as braille. Additionally, this data is to be used by the IEP team in determining the appropriate approach to literacy for the student.

We also strongly urge the U.S. Department of Education to provide additional guidance to school districts as to the circumstances in which braille instruction is beneficial to a student who is blind or has a visual impairment. Assistive technology, including text-to-speech, is an important and necessary means to literacy for many students with print disabilities. However, for students with blindness or a visual impairment, providing instruction in assistive technology alone may not be used as the only reason for denying braille instruction.

Instruction in braille offers students with blindness or a visual impairment the best path to college and career readiness, independence, and a productive future. Thank you for your partnership in ensuring the statutory provisions in IDEA are implemented consistent with the intent of Congress.


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