The Braille Monitor                                                                                                     February 2005

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The Instructional Materials Accessibility Act:
Reviewing the Long Road to Passage

by James McCarthy


James McCarthy
James McCarthy

From the Editor: After four years of devoting much energy during the Washington Seminar to persuading Congress that it should pass the Instructional Materials Accessibility Act, it is fitting that this February we spend a moment to look back at exactly how we managed to get the provisions of this legislation enacted. In the following article NFB Director of Governmental Affairs James McCarthy describes the beginning of the effort. This is what he says:

With reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) last November and its inclusion of key provisions of the Instructional Materials Accessibility Act (IMAA), I found myself seeking to place this momentous occasion in perspective. The NFB has stressed the fundamental importance of ensuring that the blind read and write Braille in part because those who can do so have more opportunities in employment than those who cannot. Once implemented, the IMAA will speed up the process and diminish the cost of converting printed material into Braille. This will help foster greater Braille literacy among blind children, increasing their opportunities once they reach adulthood.

Since 2000 the NFB has worked for federal legislation, and earlier efforts by NFB affiliates in many states to pass Braille bills led (or perhaps drove) publishers to support a national approach. Throughout the 1990's the NFB campaigned for passage of model state Braille bills that we had developed. Texas was the first to pass Braille literacy legislation, with many states soon to follow.

Many of these laws required publishers to provide an electronic copy of textbooks upon request for use by blind children. Once serious discussions of federal legislation commenced, the Association of American Publishers (AAP) asserted that publishers were bound by differing standards in twenty-six states. The most common file type stipulated was ASCII, which, while readily accessible for the blind, was not used by publishers and was difficult to format properly. The publishers' desire to have only a single file format standard required of them and the development of more versatile electronic file types have finally helped lead to passage of the IMAA.

Also in 1996 the NFB advocated for congressional enactment of the Chafee amendment, named for John Chafee, the senator from Rhode Island who introduced it. The basic objective of this provision was to permit certain entities to convert printed materials into specialized formats for use by the blind and others with print disabilities without seeking prior permission of the publisher. Before the Chafee amendment it often took several months for this permission to be granted. Progress came more quickly because the group of eligible individuals was readily determinable as those who are certified by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped of the Library of Congress. This small piece of legislation marked the first collaboration between the blind and the publishers, serving as a confidence builder for both.

Until recently I would have ended my little report at this point. However, a couple of questions remain to be answered. How did we establish deliberations with the publishers in the first place? How did the idea of a national repository for collecting, cataloging, and distributing electronic files emerge? To answer these questions, I turned to past issues of the Braille Monitor, where I regularly look to learn about issues requiring NFB involvement.

I recalled that at my first NFB national convention at the Chicago Hilton in 1995, one program item was a publisher panel chaired by Dr. Jernigan. Like many first-timers I found so much to consider that I did not pay enough attention to this panel discussion. I knew this subject was important to the blind, and I recall thinking that Dr. Jernigan was a tough questioner, but little else. I would encourage readers to look back at the 1995 convention issue, because much of what we now know as the IMAA can be traced to that panel discussion, as readers will see.

Dr. Jernigan's objective is clear: "I want to emphasize to you that, whatever else comes, Braille must and will be made accessible and available to blind students in the schools throughout the country ... [I]n the same way that sighted children in this country would fight, their parents would fight for the right for them to have textbooks, we intend to have textbooks; and we have the clout to make it happen."

Prior to the 1995 convention the blind and the publishers had talked around each other rather than to each other. Dr. Jernigan said, "This is an important item on our program, perhaps as much for the fact of its occurrence as for what any of us who are making presentations will say. It is long past time that we and the Association of American Publishers, Inc., got together and tried to see if we can make common cause."

President Maurer followed up by saying to the AAP representatives, "You have an interest in the copyright law, and so do we. We were asked recently to provide proposed language to amend that law to make it much more readily and easily available to have Braille made available for us. We did provide that language. You provided language having to do with a national repository. We didn't discuss ours with you. You didn't discuss yours with us. If we keep on that way, I suspect there is going to be conflict. I'd rather there weren't, but if we don't change, I see no alternative."

Robert St. Claire, the first of the AAP representatives to speak, first suggested the national repository, which supporters of the IMAA believe to be a critical component. "One of the primary missions ... is to promote the development of a national repository for electronic files for Braille textbook production. Such a repository ... would enable publishers to send electronic files to one location instead of to fifty different locations. Through the state's own identification and assessment of blind students, the repository then could determine state requirements and provide files to states only as needed.

"It could also serve as a clearinghouse to advise states of prior requests from other states and to avert duplication of effort among state agencies. A national repository could not only eliminate unnecessary waste and duplication, it also could provide a much needed service to the many state and regional agencies faced with the formidable task of guaranteeing accessible educational materials for blind students."

As proponents of the IMAA deliberated, it became clear (for many of the reasons Mr. St. Clair suggested in the preceding quotation) that a national repository was a critical component in any solution that would get books to blind children on time. The battle to ensure that the repository would be included in IDEA turned out to be the final legislative struggle. With the active support of the blind and the publishers, Congress finally included the repository at the eleventh hour.

After the Chicago convention of 1995, the blind and the AAP negotiated with each other to create mutually beneficial legislation. The Chafee amendment was the first, setting the stage for future legislation. We have now finally achieved the IMAA to ensure that blind elementary and high school students receive their books on time.

The next step is to ensure that college students receive access to printed materials that will allow them to succeed. While it will take time to achieve this objective, the AAP has come to the NFB prepared to work on the solution. Over the last ten years the NFB and the AAP have gained trust negotiating with each other, so I have confidence that in time college students will have the enhanced access to printed materials they deserve.

Throughout the history of the NFB, access to printed information has posed one of the greatest barriers faced by the blind, and Dr. Jernigan led the fight to eliminate it. Six years after Dr. Jernigan's death it remains a barrier. However, today we can actually imagine a time when printed material will be widely accessible to the blind, and the relationship developed between us and the publishers is an important reason this actually may come to pass.

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