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Your Child's Right to Read
by Carol Castellano

Reprinted from In Touch, the newsletter of the POBC-NJ

A father reports that his daughter had to be placed in a Resource Room instead of the regular classroom during the school year. The child has no learning problems or delays; she simply cannot keep up with the class reading on a closed circuit television.

"Braille is a tremendous undertaking, very complicated and difficult to learn," a blindness professional tells one mom. "Let your son use his vision for as long as he has it."

"My child isn't blind. She doesn't need Braille. She can use a CCTV to read." But when the partially sighted youngster reaches second grade, her mother realizes the child cannot read at all. By the time Braille instruction is finally initiated, the student is lagging far behind her classmates. "I had been so happy that my daughter 'wasn't blind.' I now see that Braille is not a curse of blindness, but a tool of literacy and freedom," the mom says.

What do these scenarios have in common? A negative attitude that Braille is the medium of last resort and the misconception that Braille is not for youngsters who have some eyesight. The reality is that Braille is a valuable tool that is the key for both totally blind and partially sighted people to full literacy and equality in the classroom. Not every partially sighted person needs Braille. But there are far too many students with partial vision for whom Braille would be a sensible reading option, who are denied instruction in this most beneficial medium.

There is good news. An important change was made to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the federal law that guarantees a "free and appropriate education" to children with disabilities. The change says:

"The IEP Team 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." (Section 614(d)(3)(B)(iii))

What does this actually mean? It means, first of all, that the school must provide Braille. Secondly, it means that four specific areas must be examined before Braille can be ruled out. The IEP team, which includes the parent(s), must evaluate

1. the child's present reading and writing skills;

2. his/her reading and writing needs;

3. the appropriate reading and writing media (which could end up being Braille, print, or both Braille and print); and

4. any need the child might have in the future for Braille.

Only if the results of these evaluations show that the child does not presently need Braille and will not need Braille in the future, can Braille be ruled out.

Decisions about teaching Braille have often been made on a single basis—whether the child had enough vision to see any print. Now, it is no longer legal to say that just because a child can see a little, he/she cannot have Braille. The teaching of Braille was often delayed until the child began falling behind in school. Now, families and teachers should not have to watch their children or students fail before an appropriate literacy tool is provided. Decisions about teaching Braille were often full of emotion—"You're making the child blind." Now decisions about Braille will be based on an objective examination of the child's present and future need for the medium. Braille used to be the medium of last resort. Braille will now be the medium of first choice. This change in the law has the potential to make an enormously positive difference in the lives of blind children.

Many of us have heard Braille spoken about as very difficult and burdensome to learn. We have heard that partially sighted students don't want to learn Braille or that they will read it with their eyes anyway. But it's all in the presentation. If Braille is presented in a positive light as the medium of choice for full literacy, if the methods of teaching it are engaging and appropriate, if children are taught to pair their remaining vision with their sense of touch, then Braille learning will be undertaken with the same excitement and interest that a child might have for any other subject or skill. And it will be mastered with a sense of pleasure and accomplishment.

The fact is that Braille is a wonderful literacy tool, whether it is used exclusively or along with print. It enables the child to read fast and without fatigue, to keep up with the class, to take notes and read them back. Braille opens the world of the analysis of literature and of higher math and the sciences. Braille levels the playing field, enables our children to compete on equal terms with their peers, and to have access to all aspects of a good education. This law is a great victory for blind/visually impaired children, for it ensures that they will now be given the tools they need for full literacy, for a complete education, and for a bright tomorrow.

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