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Braille Instruction Receives Boost From Education Department

Addressing concerns that some blind and visually impaired youth aren't receiving Braille instruction when they need it, the Education Department released a "Dear Colleague" letter today reiterating that Braille should be the default literacy medium unless a school team determines that it is inappropriate for a given student.

The letter notes that a shortage of personnel trained in teaching Braille—an alphabet of raised dots that can be read with the fingertips—is not a reason to deny a child access to the instruction. Students also cannot be denied access to Braille simply because alternatives exist, such as large-print materials, speech-output computers, or recorded materials. In addition, the team drafting the individualized education program for a student should also take into account a student's future needs, which would be particularly relevant for youth with degenerative conditions who may have relatively good vision while they're young, but are expected to lose vision as they get older.

"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," said the letter, which was signed by Melody Musgrove, the director of the office of special education programs, and Michael K. Yudin, the acting assistant secretary for the office of special education and rehabilitative services.

Organizations for the blind cheered the department's letter, which was released in conjunction with the first-ever Braille Summit, being held at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Mass., and sponsored by Perkins and the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, a program of the Library of Congress. Yudin addressed the gathering by telephone to announce the Dear Colleague letter.

A 2009 report from the National Federation for the Blind has noted that Braille literacy had dropped to about 10 percent of blind and visually impaired people, even though Braille literacy was correlated with higher academic achievement and more highly paid employment.

"We hope and believe that these clarifications will reverse the harmful decline in Braille instruction that has left too many blind people functionally illiterate, and will restore Braille to its proper place as the most effective reading and writing medium for blind people," said Marc Maurer, the president of the National Federation for the Blind, in a statement.

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