Israel's Education Ministry is refusing to provide textbooks and other study materials for more than 1,000 blind and visually impaired children in the country’s mainstream schools, activist groups say.
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Groups fighting for the rights of the children accuse the ministry of shirking its duty to deal with the situation. They petitioned the High Court of Justice more than two years ago about the lack of study materials for the blind and visually impaired. The petitioners, Bizchut and Ofek Liyladenu, asked the High Court to order the ministry to provide textbooks, teaching materials and matriculation exams appropriate for blind and visually impaired students.
Blind students need books in Braille or audio form, while visually impaired students need audio tapes or enlarged print. Books and texts can often easily be made accessible by converting digital files to Braille or using assistive computer technology that reads text aloud, the petitioners say.
The ministry has recently replied to the court that it was willing to make textbooks accessible for the blind and visually impaired only until the end of October, i.e., for the first two months of the school year. Also, the ministry said it would only provide the books in question if it received names by the previous May (three months before the start of the school year), although many schools don’t have textbook lists available so early.
The ministry also said it could not commit to providing accessible books in mathematics, engineering, geography and the sciences, as well as any in Arabic.
Currently, there are no textbooks or materials in an accessible format on any subject. So far, parents have been buying the appropriate books with the help of nonprofit organizations, such as the Central Library for the Blind, the petitioners say.
The best way to make books accessible is with the help of digital copies of textbooks, the petitioners say. But the ministry says that giving students a digital book file depends on the publisher’s consent, due to the risk of breaching copyrights.
“The risk in breaching the publisher’s copyright in giving a student a book in Braille is slim, while a digital file could be used not only by the student it was given to, but by any student … therefore it could harm the publisher,” the ministry wrote.
“If the legal advisers care more about copyrights than making books and study materials accessible to the blind, then there’s a problem," responded Yael Weisz-Rind, general manager of Ofek Liyladenu. "Our biggest disappointment is that even when the ministry takes responsibility, we have a feeling it doesn’t really want to help.”
The petitioners asked the court to order the Education Ministry to present a clear position about the ways it can oblige textbook publishers to provide a digital version of the books for the next school year.
Bizchut attorney Yotam Tolub said that despite the ministry’s promise to publish a memorandum making it clear to schools that they have an obligation to provide accessible books to students, it has failed to do so.
Tolub said that even after agreeing to produce certain books in Braille and in large-print format, following negotiations, “the ministry failed to meet the school year deadline, even two years after the petition was filed.”
“In September, when the school year began, many of the textbooks were unavailable, and no books were accessible in Arabic,” he said.
“There’s a huge gap between the ministry’s rhetoric and its actions,” Tolub added. “It could all have been solved by one decision requiring the publishers to provide an accessible digital copy of every textbook in the curriculum, as is customary in many states around the world.
“Instead, the blind and visually impaired students are forced to sit in class without suitable books, dependent on their friends and teachers’ goodwill,” he said.
In many countries, blind and visually impaired children’s rights and school needs are regulated by legislation. In the United States, for example, a law passed in 2004 requires publishers to give the Library of Congress digital copies of textbooks for schools whose students include blind and visually impaired children.