Braille Bills:
What Are They And What Do They Mean?

by Fredric K. Schroeder

Copyright © 1995
National Federation of the Blind

          From the Associate Editor: Fred Schroeder has been a leader in the organized blind movement for a number of years. He currently serves as a member of the Board of Directors of the National Federation of the Blind. He is also an experienced professional in the field of work with the blind. Trained as a teacher of blind children and an orientation and mobility specialist, he directed the low incidence programs in the Albuquerque, New Mexico, public school system before becoming the Director of the New Mexico Commission for the Blind. He is a professional in the blindness field with excellent credentials, down-to-earth common sense, and a sense of humor that gives him perspective. But first and foremost, he is a blind consumer, and his ability to remember that truth keeps his feet planted firmly in reality. In the following article he describes what Braille bills are and places them in the context of the struggle of blind people for equal opportunity. Here is what he has to say:

          In 1940, when the blind organized to promote their social and economic integration, there was a dramatic albeit predictable response from the field of work with the blind. Professionals harbored real resentment against clients who presumed to speak out on their own behalf. The conflict centered on the simple question of who would speak for the blind. Would it be the blind themselves, or would it be those in the blindness profession, who through training and practice had come to regard themselves as the true experts on the needs of blind people?

          For more than fifty years this conflict has continued focusing on a series of issues which in turn have represented the latest battleground in the ongoing conflict. We have struggled over freedom of association; the institutionalization of oppressive practices through the creation of the National Accreditation Council; minimum wages for blind workers; and, most recently, freedom of choice in the provision of rehabilitation services. In each case and at each step, the right of self- determination has been at the center of the fray; yet as blind people we have never faltered in our conviction that we alone are best able to appraise our own needs and determine our own futures.

          In the late 1970s the National Federation of the Blind began to call for the teaching of cane travel to young blind children. What appeared to skilled cane travelers to be the self-evident advantage of teaching young children to travel independently escaped most blindness professionals, who met our demands with open hostility. The orientation and mobility professionals believed that cane travel should be restricted to high-school-aged students and perhaps the occasional middle school student. The concept of training young children to use the white cane was viewed as irresponsible and denounced as the political agitation of a radical group of malcontents.

          Yet the blind, recognizing the importance of self-confidence and the skills to put that confidence into practice, began working with parents and young children to show them the advantages of independent travel. Finally the self-evident benefits of early cane training began to penetrate the orientation and mobility profession. Eventually, the idea of early cane training ceased to be radical as mobility professionals began tentatively experimenting with the idea. At the end of a decade of blind people's pressing for early cane training, the orientation and mobility profession announced a startling revelation: the profession--all by itself, without any help from anyone--had miraculously discovered that young children could in fact master independent cane travel. Late in 1988 the Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, a publication of the American Foundation for the Blind, carried an article discussing cane training for young blind children. Incredibly it was purported that this article was the first time anyone had discussed the possibility of cane training for preschoolers.

          It is disappointing that progress in the field of work with the blind seems always to follow the pattern of blind people's pressing for change and the professionals' stubbornly resisting progress. The most recent example of this pattern can be seen in the Braille literacy controversy. In the early 1980s the National Federation of the Blind began drawing attention to the increasing level of illiteracy among blind students graduating from our nation's schools. Much of the decrease in literacy can be traced to the low vision movement of the 1970s, which inculcated in modern pedagogy the age-old myth that to see a little was somehow better (almost more virtuous) than to see not at all. For twenty years young blind children were dissuaded from learning and reading Braille in favor of relying ineffectively on limited vision to read print. While it is not necessary to catalogue this tragedy in detail, it is fair to say that a whole generation of blind people have suffered diminished opportunity as a result of inadequate Braille training.

          Needing a mechanism for focussing public attention on the Braille crisis, the National Federation of the Blind created the concept of Braille legislation, which would establish public policy on the right of blind persons to become literate and productive. The first Braille bill was passed in Minnesota just five years ago in 1987. As with other controversies throughout the years, the blind have led the fight while professionals denied that a problem existed.

          In the five years since the first Braille bill was passed, eleven states have followed suit: Arizona, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia have joined the ranks of states committed to greater opportunities for blind children.

          Not surprisingly, a number of myths have developed concerning Braille bills and their effects. The most common of these is the charge that Braille bills mandate Braille instruction for all legally blind children. While this charge is intended to demonstrate the irrationality of the Federation's viewpoint, one is tempted to ask what is wrong with wanting legally blind children to learn Braille. Neither parents nor teachers cringe when they realize that sighted children are expected to learn print, nor is there a passionate demand to consider the sighted child's individuality. Yet the concept of teaching legally blind children to read Braille is offered as another example of the radical and irrational nature of the organized blind.

          Regardless of whether all blind children should or should not be taught Braille, none of the nation's twelve Braille statutes contains such a requirement. No Braille bill in any state requires the teaching of Braille to all legally blind children. The strongest legislation sets forth a presumption that legally blind children will read Braille unless the Individual Education Plan (IEP) team determines otherwise, while other legislation mandates only that Braille be considered in the educational planning for blind children. The real purpose of Braille bills is to serve as a statement of public policy, recognizing the need for literacy among the blind, paralleling the need for literacy among the sighted.

          As Braille bills have developed, a number of logical extensions have become incorporated into more recent pieces of legislation. One of the most controversial is the requirement for competency testing for teachers of blind children. With the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) on the verge of releasing a Braille competency test, such a requirement has become practical and easy to administer. While it is intuitively reasonable that teachers of blind children should be able to read and write Braille, it must be remembered that the educational establishment has de-emphasized the code for more than twenty years. As a result many teachers of blind children are no longer able to read and write Braille efficiently and have been trained to believe that Braille is the least desirable choice. Teachers trained during this period probably received poor training in Braille reading and writing initially and subsequently found little if any use for it in their teaching. Braille legislation requiring competency testing strikes a responsive chord among many of today's blind children and their parents. Predictably, significant numbers of teachers of blind children oppose Braille bills, asserting that their competence to read and write Braille is unrelated to their ability to teach blind children. As a result these teachers have testified in opposition to competency testing as an unimportant and counterproductive element in Braille legislation.

          A relatively new element appearing in Braille legislation concerns a requirement for textbook manufacturers to produce material in electronic media in a form readily translatable into Braille. This provision first surfaced in the Texas Braille bill in May of 1991. While it was anticipated that this provision would spark serious opposition from textbook publishers, in fact the opposite has proven to be the case. Although a number of technical problems still exist, the concept of computer- translatable texts promises to make Braille more readily available than ever before.

          As with other controversies throughout the past half- century, the pattern remains consistent. First the blind promote an idea which sparks professional opposition. Through perseverance the idea achieves some implementation and success. After a while, the validity of the idea is recognized, and finally members of the profession jump on the bandwagon, eager to take credit for having thought it up themselves. In 1987 the idea of Braille bills was strongly opposed by many in the blindness profession, yet the National Federation of the Blind persisted in carrying the first one through the Minnesota legislature. Gradually Braille bills became less controversial, and today large segments of the blindness field have ceased opposing Braille bills and, in fact, have formed coalitions to work cooperatively toward promoting them. Progress does occur, albeit slowly and painfully.

          The pattern of the blind's pressing for change and the profession's resisting that change continues. As blind people we refuse to suffer another lost generation. Literacy is a fundamental right, and we will not have our potential and that of today's blind children artificially depressed through inadequate training. Blind children can compete and assume a productive role in society. Generations of blind people have proven the truth of this statement, and the next generation must be given the tools to continue the struggle for true equality. Braille bills are an expression of public policy and a manifestation of blind people's determination to live normal lives as fully participating members of society. Momentum is gathering as more and more states enact Braille legislation, thereby joining the growing Braille literacy movement. In many ways this movement has become an expression of our confidence in the true ability of blind children and our willingness to ensure them equality of opportunity. We must translate this commitment into expressions of public policy and, perhaps more to the point, into the day-to-day training that blind children receive.

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