Amid concerns that many with visual impairments are not learning to read Braille, federal officials are reminding schools that they have a legal obligation to teach the tactile writing system.

In a “Dear Colleague” letter this week, the U.S. Department of Education said that under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act schools must provide Braille instruction to students who are blind or visually impaired unless a thorough evaluation finds that teaching Braille would not be appropriate for the child.

The guidance indicates that such instruction should be offered both to students who have limited vision from the day they enroll in kindergarten and to those who face a prospect of future vision loss. Factors like the availability of instructors or access to alternatives like large print or recorded materials should not be used to deny Braille instruction, the letter indicates.

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“Research has shown that knowledge of Braille provides numerous tangible and intangible benefits, including increased likelihood of obtaining productive employment and heightened self-esteem. Given these benefits, it is important that states and their public agencies ensure the appropriate implementation of the IDEA requirement regarding Braille instruction,” wrote Melody Musgrove, director of the Office of Special Education Programs, and Michael Yudin, acting assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services, in the letter.

As of 2010, almost 30,000 students receiving special education services across the country had “visual impairment including blindness” as their primary disability, according to the letter. Musgrove and Yudin said they often hear concerns from parents and advocates for these children about the declining number of students receiving Braille instruction over the last several decades.

“The department’s action today puts school administrators on notice,” said Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind. “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.”