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AFBAmerican Foundation®
for the Blind

Expanding possibilities for people with vision loss

ALERT!—Historic Bill Breaks Down Braille Barriers for All!

AFB-DirectConnect Newsletter, Published 4/1/2015

BLINK Act on Fast Track for Congressional Action!

For further information, contact:

Mark Richert, Esq.
Director, Public Policy, AFB
MRichert@afb.net

Rebecca Sheffield, Ph.D.
Senior Policy Researcher, AFB
RSheffield@afb.net

Braille Literacy Is Necessary Knowledge (BLINK) Act

In a surprise move early this morning, key leaders in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives have reached bipartisan agreement on brand new landmark legislation requiring all sighted students across America to exclusively learn and use braille. The bill, entitled the Braille Literacy Is Necessary Knowledge (BLINK) Act, was only introduced late last evening in an attempt by the bill’s champions to thwart mobilized opposition by proponents of vision dependency.

braille in closeup

Under the BLINK Act, which somewhat radically makes trafficking in printed textbooks and inaccessible electronic instructional materials a federal crime punishable by public humiliation on national network television, all U.S. sighted school children will be guaranteed issuance of braille textbooks for every course offered in our nation’s public school districts. Braille instruction for all sighted youngsters will be mandatory and begin in pre-K programs, with total immersion emergency braille instruction also being required immediately for all sighted students in the later grades. Under provisions of the BLINK Act that have even some of the staunchest opponents of vision dependency concerned, all high stakes test takers, whether blind or sighted, will be required, beginning in 2016, to sit for such examinations administered exclusively in braille.

BLINK Act Opposition

Even as the BLINK Act moves along its apparent fast track toward passage, a variety of interest groups are already lining up to oppose it. Once enacted, the BLINK Act will mandate that schools must trade in SMART boards and flat- screen televisions to make room for the additional shelving space needed for braille texts. A representative of the National Association of Put-Upon Public School Facilities workers said, “Do these people in Congress know what they’re doing? Here’s yet another unfunded mandate that micro-manages our public schools, and it’s going to be us over worked and underpaid facilities guys who’ll be the ones slaving away evenings and weekends to put up all this expensive new shelving for all those bumpy books.”

Support from Unlikely Partners

But still other special interests see a silver lining. Many districts are expected to issue sighted students with over-sized backpacks and roller bags to aid them in carrying their textbooks home and between classes. Lobbyists from the luggage and hand truck industries are rumored to be behind the striking bipartisanship that led to today’s early morning accord.

“You know, these guys are so dumb, they think that braille has to be on paper,” said AFB’s Director of Public Policy, Mark Richert. “But hey, the last time I tried describing to them what a refreshable braille display is, their eyes just rolled right up in their heads. Guess we gotta take our champions as we find ‘em.”

Students with Vision Dependence

What has not as yet been completely hammered out in today’s agreement is how students whose print dependence is a bona fide disability will be treated. A spokesperson for one advocacy group, Vision Dependent and Proud, said, “We’re not sitting still for this blatent disregard of sighted students’ civil rights. What’s more, our kids are just plain helpless unless they’re visually engaged. My son just goes to pieces when he’s not transfixed by lots of graphics and moving pictures.”

Still, proponents of the BLINK Act say that no sighted student will be left behind. Under the bill, students whose reliance on vision cannot be corrected after extensive counseling or, in the most severe cases, light deprivation therapy, will have their unique learning needs met.

The Role of TSSs and Printists

Specially trained TSSs (Teachers of Students with Sight) will be certified through state personnel preparation programs in order to prepare these sight-dependent students to hone their tactile skills and to prepare for success in an auditory, tactile world. However, critics of this approach say that such teacher prep programs have never been funded adequately in the past.

Additionally, school districts will employ TSSs and “printists,” who have been trained in the print alphabet and specialized rules for print production. Using software expressly designed for sighted users, such as Microsoft’s print production tool, Word, the printists can hand-keyboard documents that may be needed for sighted students on a one-on-one basis. (Of course, classroom teachers will need to submit braille documents to the printists in advance to give them time to transcribe the braille into print). The BLINK Act does allow delivery of these makeshift printed materials up to six months after the braille versions are provided. Advances in tactile scanning technology, including TCR (tactile character recognition) will enable some braille documents to be scanned and translated almost automatically into print, which can then be reproduced onto paper using a machine called a printer (similar to a braille embosser but without the pleasant sound).

Advocacy for the BLINK Act

Dr. Rebecca Sheffield, AFB’s Senior Policy Researcher, is eager to see the BLINK Act implemented nationwide. In a telephone interview with Mark Richert, she asked “Shouldn’t we be doing a full court press on this amazing bill and call out the troops to contact Congress right away?” To which, Mark replied, “April fools!!”

April Fools! But in all seriousness...

Of course, there is no BLINK Act, and we hope you got a smile out of our irreverent take on the policy process today.

At AFB’s public policy center in Washington, D.C., we are working with advocates from the deaf/hard-of-hearing and deaf-blindness education fields on legislation called the Alice Cogswell and Anne Sullivan Macy Act. This is the most comprehensive special education legislation ever drafted for children and youth with vision or hearing loss. For students with vision loss, this Act:

  • supports identification, location, and evaluation
  • requires states to ensure evaluation of students by qualified professionals using valid and reliable assessments
  • requires states to ensure they provide sufficient, qualified personnel to support students
  • requires states to provide instruction that meets students unique learning needs, including assistive technology, social skills, career skills, etc.
  • establishes a national Anne Sullivan Macy Center on Visual Disability and Educational Excellence to conduct/fund research, continuing education, enrichment projects, and personnel preparation.
school-aged girl reading braille

The Cogswell/Macy Act was introduced in the previous Congress but has yet to be reintroduced this year. The bill's reintroduction will be an historic declaration by the sensory disabilities community that America's current special education system must innovate dramatically to be truly worthy of the potential of all children and youth who are deaf, hard of hearing, blind, visually impaired, or deaf-blind. Reach out to your two U.S. Senators and your House of Representatives Member and urge them to support the Cogswell/Macy Act. Thank you!

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