Blind World Magazine

What You Should Know About
Free Matter for the Blind and Handicapped.

the Matilda Ziegler Magazine for the Blind.
July 15, 2006.

For more than a century, Free Matter for the Blind and Handicapped legislation has facilitated the process of sending and receiving mail for people who cannot read standard print. Free Matter is free to its users, but the U.S. government actually reimburses the Postal Service for providing the privilege, which is widely used. In 2004, 71.1 million pieces of Free Matter, weighing 34.6 million pounds, were sent through the mails.

It was not in the United States, however, where Free Matter mailings originated. Canada, in 1898, implemented this mailing privilege for its citizens. The United States did not follow suit until March of the next year.

Over time, the U.S. Free Matter law has been substantially altered in at least 14 instances, mostly to eliminate restrictions on the matter. Initially, unsealed letters with raised characters were permitted to be mailed by blind people. Shortly thereafter, books were allowed to be sent back and forth between public libraries and blind readers. Although there were specific weight requirements, books and pamphlets were the first published materials that could be mailed free of charge.

The next significant modification occurred several years later, and was spearheaded by the Matilda Ziegler Magazine for the Blind's first editor, Walter Holmes. Free Matter, at that time, did not apply to magazines. The Ziegler was forced to charge an annual subscription fee of 10 cents so that the magazine would qualify for the second-class mailing rate. Mr. Holmes was not particularly stringent about collecting this fee. Moreover, he thought his magazine should be eligible for Free Matter mailing, and so he lobbied Congress to amend the law to include periodicals. In 1910, Congressman William Stafford of Wisconsin introduced the amendment, and two years later, the Ziegler and other magazines were being sent through the mail free of charge.

Mr. Holmes's efforts would have long-lasting and much- appreciated results, as every comparable publication relating to blind and physically handicapped readers would thereafter reap the benefits of this change in the law.

Of course, the amended law was accepted with some parameters. It prohibits magazines that use Free Matter from charging a subscription fee and/or carrying paid advertising.

Throughout the next several decades, the Free Matter law was progressively altered to allow matter other than letters and publications to be sent. In 1934, Congress decreed that sound reproduction records would be the first non-embossed items eligible for mailing by Free Matter.

Heavier items, such as braillewriters, received a mailing privilege of a different sort. In 1941, braillers were permitted to be mailed at a rate of one cent per pound, but, over the years, weight regulations for such heavier objects, including books with multiple volumes, became more lenient and then were dropped altogether.

Along with the continuous expansion of the U.S. law, Free Matter eventually became international--for at least some people, according to the National Library Service's book, That All May Read. Although every country was not involved initially, "Exemption from Postal Charges for Impressions in Relief for the Blind" was adopted by the Brussels Congress of the Universal Postal Union (UPU) in 1952. The UPU Congress convened again in 1957, leading to future postal agreements that permitted blind people in any country to use the mail system free of charge.

When sending packages as Free Matter to a destination outside the United States, a 15-pound weight limit applies, although the domestic weight limit is 70 pounds.

After such issues as weight requirements and international mailings were successfully resolved by 1970, Free Matter became virtually barrier-free. Today, there is a long listing of Free Matter regulations. For instance, senders and receivers of such mailings should be aware that all mail in this category can legally be opened for postal inspection, and should only be sent by blind or physically handicapped individuals and related organizations. In addition to recordings and reading material in braille, print material is permitted, as long as it is in 14- point or larger type. Advertising is not permissible in any format. Also, the words "Free Matter for the Blind or Handicapped" must appear on the upper right-hand corner of envelopes.

Postal workers sometimes refuse Free Matter privileges to people who meet all the requirements. According to the U.S. Domestic Mail Manual, if an eligible person is ever wrongfully denied this service, he or she may have to provide the post office with documentation from a competent medical authority or librarian.

To resolve a problem, first try talking to the local postmaster. Should that not work, ask to speak to the consumer advocate at that post office or one for the region. As a last resort, write to the Postmaster General, 475 L'Enfant Plaza, S.W., Washington, DC 20260.

Although Free Matter is important and long-established, there surprisingly is a paucity of information on this subject-- particularly about its early history and international mailings. Aside from the aforementioned book, That All May Read, there are two resources about regulations in the United States: the United States Code, title 30, sections 3404-3405 and the Domestic Mail Manual, section E040. Anyone seeking more information on Free Matter can locate the manual at

Also, the Consumer Advocate of the Postal Service has produced Publication 347, a print pamphlet designed to answer the most- often-asked questions about Free Matter for the Blind and Handicapped. This publication is also available via the Internet at

End of article.

Any further reproduction or distribution of this article in a format other than a specialized format, may be an infringement of copyright.

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