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Printer, Publisher Reach an Accord To Ease Access to Braille Textbooks

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Braille textbooks will be more readily available to blind and visually impaired students under an agreement reached this summer between the American Printing House for the Blind and D.C. Heath & Company.

The contract is the first of several in the works between the printing house--a federally funded central agency and clearinghouse for Braille and large-print books--and major textbook-publishing companies. The purpose of the contracts is to cut through the red tape that delays the production of Braille versions of new textbooks.

David A. Bice, the publisher liaison for the printing house, said some blind and visually impaired students wait six months or more for Braille versions of the textbooks their sighted classmates are using.

"They are relegated to second-class citizenship because they have to use old books,'' he said.

Mr. Bice and advocates for the visually impaired said the new effort is an outgrowth of a movement afoot nationwide to increase access to Braille instruction.

Once universally taught to blind children, Braille became less available as the need for vision teachers began to outpace the supply in the 1950's, and later on, as blind children began to move from residential schools to neighborhood schools. Special educators began to focus instead on using large-print books and on devices that help students make greater use of their residual vision.

But much of the equipment, such as high-powered magnifiers, was bulky and useless to visually impaired people outside classrooms. That realization, coupled with concern in recent years over alarming rates of illiteracy among blind children and adults, has fueled the call for more Braille instruction in schools.

'New Generation' of Laws

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According to the National Federation of the Blind, which has spearheaded the Braille campaign, 13 states have passed laws expanding students' access to Braille instruction in schools. (See Education Week, Dec. 6, 1989.)

While some of the new laws simply say special educators should consider providing Braille instruction to nonsighted students, others are more sweeping. They require, for example, that the medium be available to every blind child for whom it is appropriate or that all vision teachers be trained in Braille.

More recently, however, Mr. Bice said, "a new generation of Braille bills'' has also begun to address the problem of delays in producing Braille versions of textbooks.

New laws in Kentucky, Louisiana, and Texas, for example, require textbook publishers to make computer files of new textbooks available soon after the books are formally adopted by the states so that Braille versions can quickly be produced.

The problem with these laws, Mr. Bice said, is that they are only applicable in the individual states and are of little use in expediting Braille translation in states where books are adopted at the school-district level.

Under the agreement with D.C. Heath, the publisher has given the American Printing House for the Blind blanket permission to produce Braille versions of its books, thereby eliminating the time-consuming process of obtaining permissions. Mr. Bice said Braille versions of 21 of the company's textbooks already are being produced under the agreement. He said the printing house is also negotiating with several other major textbook publishers.

"I think there's a clear consensus the industry ought to move this way,'' said Albert Bursma Jr., the president of the school division of D.C. Heath, which is based in Lexington, Mass.

The effort to make Braille materials readily available has also been fueled, Mr. Bice said, by the Americans with Disabilities Act, the landmark law taking effect this year that bars all forms of discrimination against disabled people.

"Although A.D.A. does not specifically deal with textbooks, it does say there has to be accesss to information,'' he noted. "People are beginning to realize they cannot deprive the student who is blind.''

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