While attending conferences and events within the Washington DC area, I have had the opportunity to meet with several government agencies and learn more about their initiatives to provide free or low-cost assistive technology and accessibility resources to residents of the United States who are legally blind, as well as people with low vision who may not meet the legal blindness definition. Here are the most helpful US government programs for blind/low vision residents that I have personally used or worked with, as well as some additional programs that are beneficial to legally blind residents.
Please note that this post only covers resources provided by US government agencies, and not state agencies or initiatives. There may be additional state-specific resources for blind and low vision residents depending on location, such as free fishing licenses or discounted transportation.
iBill currency reader (free)
The iBill currency reader is a small battery-powered device that identifies US currency either by announcing the value of the bill or through vibration feedback. The iBill currency reader can be purchased for about $130, however US citizens or legal residents can also get one for free through the US Bureau of Engraving. This is the exact same device that is sold on Amazon and can be requested by filling out the form below. Note that one of the form sections requires a competent authority to certify that the person requesting the device is blind or has low vision- this can be a doctor or another vision professional.
- U.S. Currency Reader Application Form | Engraving & Printing (bep.gov)
- How To Identify Money With Low Vision
National Parks Lifetime Access Pass (free in-person, $10 online/mail-in)
US citizens and permanent residents of all ages with a permanent disability can receive the Lifetime Access Pass for free admission to US National Parks, as well as additional discounts for expanded amenity fees. Qualified residents will need to have a physician certify that they have a permanent disability or have another document proving disability such as a document issued by a state or federal agency. The pass can be issued for free at participating national parks with qualifying documentation, or requested online or via mail with a $10 processing fee.
TSA Pre-Check ($85)
A TSA Pre-Check is a program that allows US citizens or lawful permanent residents that have not been convicted of certain crimes to go through expedited security lanes at participating airports- this works for both domestic and most international flights. While this program is not exclusive to people with vision loss, it is especially helpful to be able to go through airport security without having to remove shoes, light jackets, and other items from carry-on bags. The TSA Pre-Check costs $85 and is valid for five years, which is the equivalent of $17 a year.
- TSA PreCheck® | Transportation Security Administration
- How A TSA Pre-Check Helps Me As A Visually Impaired Traveler
USPS Free Matter for the Blind (free)
Got mail? Or should I say, got Braille? The USPS Free Matter for the Blind program allows accessible materials such as large print (defined as 14 pt font or larger), Braille, audio recordings, and similar items to be mailed free of charge by the US Postal Service. Any items that are being mailed by or for someone who is blind or that has low vision can qualify for this program. Additional details can be found on the USPS website linked below.
National Library Service/Talking Book Library (free)
The National Library Service provides free Braille and talking (audio) books for people with print disabilities, which includes blind and low vision. Once a user is certified by a competent authority to have a print disability, they can connect with their regional NLS library to start receiving books either for instant download to their device or through the mail. Users can also apply to receive a free talking book player if they are receiving talking books through the mail.
- Apply for NLS Service – National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled (NLS) | Library of Congress (loc.gov)
While Bookshare is not technically a government service (it is a US-based non-profit organization), Bookshare services are available for free to students enrolled in K-12 schools as well as colleges or universities in the United States through a grant provided by the US Department of Education. Bookshare provides eligible users with access to over one million accessible titles and has additional options for paid memberships as well- in the US, Bookshare is available for $50 a year.
- Bookshare | An Accessible Online Library for people with print disabilities
- Ten Cool Things You Didn’t Know About Bookshare
- My Letter of Support for Bookshare Services
SOAR disability accommodations (free)
The Job Accommodation Network is part of the Office of Disability Employment Policy and Department of Labor, and has several fantastic free resources for people navigating disability accommodations in the workplace, though many of these accommodations can also be used in academic settings. The Searchable Online Accommodation Resource (SOAR) provides several sample accommodations and modifications that can be used by people with various disabilities and chronic illnesses, not just vision loss. This information is free and available to the public.
- Accommodation Search (askjan.org)
- How To Come Up With Sample Accommodations
- Common Classroom Accommodations For Low Vision
IRS tax deduction (varies)
The IRS offers an increase to the standard tax deduction for people who are certified as legally blind by a physician. This program has been around since 1943 to account for expenses related to living with vision loss such as increased transportation and technology costs, though the exact amount that can be deducted changes every year. Since I am not a tax professional, I cannot provide any additional information on this, but wanted to share it as it is a valuable resource for people living with vision loss!
Summary of free and low cost US government programs/initiatives for legally blind residents
- The iBill Currency Reader can identify paper money and is available for free through the Bureau of Engraving and Printing
- The Lifetime Access Pass provides free admission to US National Parks as well as additional discounts
- TSA Pre-Checks allow participants to get expedited security screenings for domestic US flights
- USPS Free Matter for the Blind allows for qualifying accessible materials to be mailed for free
- The National Library Service provides free access to Braille and talking (audio) books
- Bookshare provides free access to its large library of accessible digital books for US students
- SOAR disability accommodations list examples of disability accommodations that can be requested in the workplace as well as several other free resources
- The IRS offers an increased standard deduction for taxpayers who are legally blind