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Senators, Advocates Call for Increase, Improvement in Teaching Braille

A quarter of the U.S. Senate is calling upon Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to take steps to ensure students who are visually impaired are taught Braille.

Education Department regulations say that students who are blind or visually impaired are supposed to be taught Braille, unless teachers find that it isn't appropriate for a particular student.

But according to some estimates, only about 10 percent of the nation's blind students are actually taught Braille.The reasons: There aren't enough Braille teachers, some teachers of blind children don't have enough training, and many educators do not think Braille instruction is even necessary, according to the National Federation of the Blind.

Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington, doesn't agree.

"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," reads the letter sent this week from the group of 26 senators, led by Murray. "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."

Murray's office said 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.

The senators urge Duncan to consult stakeholders and write new regulations for the education plans of students who are blind or visually impaired, and give guidance to school districts on teaching Braille reading and writing. The group said IEP teams should evaluate students for instruction in reading Braille, and those evaluations should include a data-based learning media assessment that provides data from learning modalities including auditory and visual.

The group also wants the Education Department to provide additional guidance to school districts about when Braille instruction is beneficial to a student who is blind or has a visual impairment. While assistive technology, including devices or programs that convert text to speech are important, "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."

Of note, some states have taken steps recently to enhance their instruction in Braille.

Sen. Murray's office notes that, compared to sighted peers, fewer students who are blind or visually impaired attend college, and those who do make it to college often find themselves underprepared for the challenges they face. Teaching students to read and write Braille could help get them ready for higher education, the lawmakers contend.

"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," the senators wrote.

"For many of these students, Braille instruction is begun much later, once the student's visual acuity significantly decreases," they continued. "Often, the result is that the student is unable to access the grade-level curriculum because he or she lacks proficiency in Braille."

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