Legislators are considering a bill that would force public schools to provide timely instructional material.

Emerie Mitchell-Butler went five months without a textbook for her Advanced Placement biology class even though the rest of her classmates received theirs on the first day of school. 

That would be rough for any student, but Mitchell-Butler is blind and depends on braille and tactile graphics to understand complicated diagrams, charts, and graphs through her fingertips. 

Although the state Department of Education provided her with an online version, Mitchell-Butler said the pictures and diagrams can’t be interpreted by the screen reader that usually converts text to sound.

“It’s incredibly unhelpful,” she said. “It has absolutely no information. It might have the title of the graphic but nothing else.”

Mitchell-Butler said she got her hardcopy braille textbook in January. Now she only has four months to prepare for her AP exam scheduled for May, while her sighted peers have had the whole school year to prepare. 

While preparing for the AP exam, Mitchell-Butler said she’s aware that the exams will be mostly diagram heavy. 

“The other students had the time to practice looking at a diagram and understanding it quickly,” Mitchell-Butler said.

Mitchell-Butler said she feels bad for her teacher because she has to do more work to help her understand the graphs when she should have had her textbook. 

Emerie Mitchell-Butler has about five months to study for her Advanced Placement biology exam, which she says will mostly consist of interpreting diagrams. She said she needs tactile graphics in order for her to understand the diagrams. Tactile graphics are allow blind students visually read images through their fingertips. (Courtesy: Tabatha Mitchell/2023)
Emerie Mitchell-Butler said she needs tactile graphics in order to understand diagrams. The tables and graphs are integral to her AP biology exam scheduled for May. (Courtesy: Tabatha Mitchell/2023)

Hawaii passed a law about 20 years ago requiring textbook publishers to provide an electronic file to the school system so the textbooks can be produced. But advocates say the current state law is outdated and doesn’t reflect a 2004 federal law that requires publishers to provide recent electronic files to the American Printing House for the Blind, that produces the resources. 

The National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard that underpins federal law is intended to ensure blind and visually impaired students have access to textbooks and other educational materials promptly.

Although the Hawaii Department of Education says it adopted the federal standard, it’s not memorialized in state law. 

House Bill 388, which passed out of the House Education Committee and awaits a hearing from the House Finance Committee, would adopt the federal standard and bind the department to provide timely instructional materials for eligible students.

The DOE did not respond directly to questions about why Mitchell-Butler’s textbook arrived later in the school year, but during a January hearing in the Legislature department officials supported the measure and apologized to Mitchell-Butler, saying her AP textbooks were more difficult to obtain.

Mitchell-Butler and her mother, Tabatha Mitchell, know the drill to prepare for the new school year. Mitchell said she has to request ahead of time to let her daughter’s teacher know that she needs specific textbooks, like science and math, in hard copy braille material. 

“It’s not a big surprise, and this is my frustration as a mom. As a parent, I know how things go in the Individualized Education Program meetings, and what we talk about. I know that everybody supposedly understands, and yet the school year starts and she still doesn’t have the book,” Mitchell said.

The Challenge Of Being Exceptional

Hawaii is not unique when it comes to failing to deliver textbooks to blind students on time, according to Dan Stewart of the National Disability Rights Network

“Throughout the nation and federal territories, we’ve heard similar stories that materials are not accessible and not timely provided,” Stewart said. “So regardless of Hawaii’s statute, this is still a federal requirement that has been in place for quite a long time and should’ve helped the student get the materials a whole lot sooner.”

In 2020, there were 270 blind and visually impaired students in Hawaii’s public schools, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported. More current numbers were not immediately available.

Virgil Stinnett, president of the National Federation of the Blind Hawaii, said the point of using the American Printing House for the Blind is to get the material back to the department as quickly as possible. 

“I’ll be honest with you, the DOE system is slow, and when it comes to children who are blind and visually impaired, they’re not a priority to them,” Stinnett said. “If a child has to wait a month to three months for material to come in when their peers surpassed them a few months ago, it’s too late.” 

Anastacia Fong, with her daughter Eliana Fong, work through Eliana’s homework after a day at Waikiki Elementary School. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Those delays are also a concern for Anastacia Fong, mother of a 9-year-old daughter, Eliana, who is blind. Her daughter currently attends Waikiki Elementary School and says the school strives to be inclusive and mindful of children on campus. 

But Fong said Eliana has sometimes been left out of activities like library visits because there wasn’t enough braille material for her in advance, Fong said. 

“She already is so blatantly different from all the other kids that to have her excluded from doing the same things as her classmates at the same time, or taken out of an activity just because there’s no braille for her, is truly heartbreaking,” Fong said.

Fong added that although her school tries, she’s more worried when her daughter goes into higher-level classes. 

The problem is systemic according to James Gashel, legislative director for the blind advocacy group National Federation of the Blind.

He underscored that students like Mitchell-Butler should have her textbook the first day of class, adding that blind students must work twice as hard to catch up. 

“They call these kids ‘exceptional children,’ and the one thing you don’t want to be in this world is exceptional,” Gashel said. “It might sound like a compliment, but if you’re exceptional, that means you don’t get what other people get even though you should. “

Civil Beat’s education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.

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