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Published in Print: May 1, 2002, as Bill Seeks Timely Supply Of Textbooks for Visually Impaired

Bill Seeks Timely Supply Of Textbooks for Visually Impaired

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Connecticut high school student Jessie Kirchner had bigger problems in her geometry class last year than figuring out the area of a trapezoid.

She was operating without a textbook.

Like other blind and visually impaired students around country, Ms. Kirchner, an 18-year-old junior at Guilford High School in Guilford, Conn., experienced major delays in obtaining Braille, electronic, or audio versions of the textbooks she needed.

"I had no book while I was waiting for it to be translated," Ms. Kirchner said last week. "I took most of the class without a book."

A bipartisan bill introduced by Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., on April 24 aims to speed up the way students with visual impairments receive instructional materials. Under the measure, states would be required to ensure that Braille and electronic learning materials are available at the same time materials are provided for students without disabilities.

"I ask myself what I would want for my daughter Grace, if she had a disability?" said Sen. Dodd, the chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Children and Families. "I expect this bill will have 100 percent support. My colleagues just need to look at their children and grandchildren. If they were blind, what resources would you want for them?"

Though 28 states have some sort of law guaranteeing blind students access to materials they need, school districts often receive no guidance to on how to make such access possible in a timely manner. No federal law addresses the subject.

Under Mr. Dodd's proposal, publishers would be required to make textbooks and materials available in a national, uniform electronic-file format. In that format, the material can be converted more easily to Braille, or used on a computer that reads text aloud.

The bill also would require the establishment of a national repository that would be a clearinghouse for such files. Then, each time a publisher produced a new book or new materials, copies of the electronic files of those materials would be sent to the repository for students and schools to access.

State Programs

In addition, the bill would require states and school districts to develop and run programs ensuring that blind and visually impaired students had quicker access to the materials. States could apply to the federal government for grants to set up such programs.

About 100,000 blind or visually impaired students are currently in special education around the country, according to the American Foundation for the Blind.

The bill's proposed funding would include $5 million a year for the grants to states to set up programs and $1 million to establish the national repository.

"That's chump change in this town," Sen. Dodd said at a press briefing last week. "But it will make such a huge difference in the lives of these kids."

Co-sponsoring the bill are Sens. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., Thad Cochran, R-Miss., and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa., and Reps. Tom Petri, R-Wis., and George Miller, D-Calif.

Why do blind and visually impaired students encounter such delays in getting their version of textbooks and materials?

Sometimes, schools don't order the books far enough in advance. Other times, problems occur in providing electronic versions to schools that can be read on computers, said Stephen D. Driesler, the executive director of the school division of the Association of American Publishers, based in Washington. After a textbook company completes a book, he said, converting it to an electronic format for the visually impaired typically takes another three months. A Braille version requires about six months, he said.

Ms. Kirchner, the Connecticut student who is blind, said the bill, if enacted, would be helpful.

"Even though I only have one more year left of school, I am glad it will help students who come after me," she said at the press briefing. "This year has been better for me. But there are still problems. When I went to play the tape of last week's history chapter, the tape was blank."

Vol. 21, Issue 33, Page 23

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