On March 2, 1899, “an act regulating the postage on letters written by the blind” was passed by Congress. This piece of legislation was the first such postal law benefiting blind persons in the United States. It allowed blind persons to mail unsealed letters in raised characters at third-class rates rather than first-class rates (That All May Read, 1983, p. 425). On April 27, 1904, Congress established the first Free Matter for the Blind mailing program by providing a funding subsidy to the post office for libraries and other institutions for the blind mailing braille materials:
That books, pamphlets, and other reading matter in raised characters for use of the blind, whether prepared by hand or printed, in single volumes, not exceeding ten pounds in weight, or in packages, not exceeding four pounds in weight and containing no advertising or other matter whatever, unsealed and when sent by public institutions for the blind, or by any public libraries, as a loan to blind readers, or when returned by the latter to such institutions or public libraries, shall be transmitted in the United States mails free of postage, and under such regulations as the Postmaster-General may prescribe.
Additions and changes have been made to the law (P.L. 91-375) over the years. On December 16, 1967, Public Law 90-206 added special-format music scores and instructional materials to the list of materials that qualified for free mailing and extended free matter privileges beyond blind people to encompass all eligible NLS patrons. Three years later, size and weight limitations were removed. Current specific regulations are contained in the Domestic Mail Manual, Section 703.5, available on the United States Postal Service (USPS) website.
Congress appropriates funds
Each year Congress appropriates funds to the USPS to cover the mailing cost of “Free Matter for the Blind or Other Physically Handicapped Persons.” Even though the mailing designation is Free Matter, the USPS is reimbursed for the cost of this service. Reading materials produced by the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled (NLS), Library of Congress, are sent to and returned by eligible readers using Free Matter mailing. These special-format audio, braille, and large-print (14 point or larger) materials and bold-note music are mailed from a network library to an eligible reader as “Free Matter for the Blind or Other Physically Handicapped Persons” and may be returned to the library in the same manner at no cost to the individual or the library. Playback equipment needed to read the recorded materials also may be mailed as Free Matter between the reader and the library, and between the library and machine-repair volunteers. Blind and physically handicapped individuals and other organizations serving blind and physically handicapped clients also use the Free Matter mailing privilege.
New requirements in mail pickup of NLS materials
In 2023, the United States Postal Service has instituted updated policies for pickup of packages, including braille and digital books. When a patron wants to return materials to the library by postage-free mail, a pickup may be scheduled by completing the short online form at https://tools.usps.com/schedule-pickup-steps.htm. Some patrons may be able to streamline the process by speaking directly with their mail carriers. Also, some network libraries may be able to assist patrons without Internet access in completing the form. As indicated in the USPS Domestic Mail Manual, Free Matter for the Blind is to be treated as First Class mail. Taking this step to request pickup online will ensure the timely return of braille and digital books to the library.
How NLS uses Free Matter
NLS coordinates a free public library program for any resident of the United States who is blind or has a visual, physical, perceptual, or reading disability that prevents them from reading or handling print materials. NLS arranges for the transcription of books into braille and for audio recordings of print books and magazines. These materials and the special playback equipment needed to use them are provided through cooperating libraries that loan the books and playback equipment to eligible readers within their service area.
For specific questions regarding postal regulations and the NLS service, please contact the NLS liaison with the United States Postal Service, Vickie Collins, Head, Network Services Section, [email protected].