Future Reflections                                                                                Convention Report 2004

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Victory for Textbooks on Time

by Kimberli Sollenberger

We’ve done it! The major obstacles to blind children receiving their textbooks at the same time as their sighted classmates have been eliminated. After a long battle, the Instructional Materials Accessibility Act (IMAA) provisions have been included in the bill to reauthorize the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Passed by both the House and the Senate on November 14, 2004, the bill is on its way to the President and is expected to be signed into law any day. This is the biggest advancement for the education of blind children since the Braille provision was included in the 1997 IDEA amendments. The future of our children’s education now looks much brighter. Finally, there will be a mandated single-file format and a national repository to organize and distribute files to state and local education agencies that have blind students (see Sections 612(a)(23), 613(a)(6), 674(e), and 306 of H.R. 1350 as enrolled). Once implemented, these provisions will significantly cut the time needed to convert textbooks into Braille and other alternative formats. Waiting for textbooks while getting further and further behind in schoolwork—now a common scenario for blind students—will soon be a thing of the past.

Kimberli Sollenberger
Kimberli Sollenberger

But it has been a long road. We have had to overcome many obstacles (including obstacles erected by the United States Department of Education) in order to win this long-awaited victory. Below, is a review of how accessible textbooks have been procured up to this point, followed by an explanation of how the NFB led the way in securing the passage of the IDEA provisions for Textbooks on Time. Let’s start with the review of the status quo:


The Selection of Instructional Materials for Classroom Use

How schools and states go about selecting instructional materials for classroom use has a significant impact on the problem at hand. Converting instructional materials into accessible formats is labor intensive. Without adequate time, the best Braille transcriber in the world cannot produce high quality Braille in a timely fashion. If schools determine which texts will be used early on, accessible format producers have a better chance of converting the text and delivering it to the student on time. In contrast, the late adoption of instructional materials inevitably leads to the late delivery of accessible formats to blind students.

The process of selecting and approving the use of instructional materials for classroom use differs from state-to-state. Some states, known as adoption states, approve the use of textbooks on a statewide basis. For example, Florida, an adoption state, employs a group of individuals to decide which math, reading, science, and other texts will be used for all grade levels in all schools throughout the state. This standardized approach to textbook adoption tends to be predictable. Very often adoption states determine which books will be used at least six months before the school year in question begins.

In other states, known as open territories, the teacher, school, or school district can determine which instructional materials will be used. The inherent flexibility in open territory states can result in the selection of instructional materials closer to the beginning of the school year. For example, a teacher could decide to use a particular science book just weeks before school begins. Because textbooks can be chosen so close to the start of the school year, it is often impossible to ensure that blind and visually impaired children receive their books on time.

How and Where Accessible Instructional Materials Are Located Now

Once the textbook selections are made, the teacher of the visually impaired (TVI) or other designated individual has to locate, purchase, or produce the accessible versions of the materials. For Braille and electronic texts, there are three primary resources available to accomplish this:

•  Ex officio trustees (agencies designated by state departments of education) which have a prepaid credit line with the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) from which accessible instructional materials and supplies can be purchased;

•  Individual state resources for the production and purchase of accessible instructional materials (Texas, for example, is well-known for its vast and comprehensive collection of internally produced accessible formats. In fact, Texas often produces accessible formats for other state and local education agencies); and

•  The Louis Database of Accessible Formats for people who are blind or visually impaired, housed at the APH, which acts as a centralized clearinghouse of over 145,000 titles in accessible formats produced by over 200 agencies.

The production of accessible formats by different instructional resource centers, schools, and other agencies have resulted in duplication of effort.

The Mechanics of Converting Instructional Materials into Accessible Formats

Under the current system, converting instructional materials into accessible formats is easier said than done. Typically, it involves a labor-intensive process of either scanning or manually inputting original information into an electronic format. This electronic version is then used to produce non-visual formats, such as Braille, or synthetic speech. The conversion process for a single textbook can take six months or more to complete. The cost, time, and labor needed to convert materials into accessible formats vary depending on the complexity of the information being converted. For example, math and science textbooks take more time to convert into alternative formats than English textbooks.

In order to streamline the conversion process, approximately twenty-seven states have required publishers to provide an electronic version of any textbook that a state or local educational agency purchased. However, electronic formatting standards vary from state-to-state and these incongruities lead to inefficient duplication for publishers. Even more important, the standards are imprecise and often result in file formats that are not easily used for the purpose intended.


The road to the provisions for Textbooks on Time started back in the early 1980’s when NFB members started working toward passing model Braille bills in each state. The first Braille bill to pass that included a requirement that publishers doing business in the state provide an electronic format file of textbooks for conversion into alternative formats was passed in Texas in 1991. Several years later, a panel discussion occurred at the 1995 NFB National Convention. On this panel were Dr. Jernigan, Dr. Maurer, members of the publishing community, and two representatives from the Association of American Publishers. This discussion finally opened the lines of communication, after years of reluctance on the part of the publishers, and ultimately led to the successful passage of the Chaffee Amendment. This amendment said that it was not a violation of the copyright laws to reproduce or to distribute copies “of a previously published, non-dramatic literary work if such copies or phono-records are reproduced or distributed in specialized formats exclusively for use by blind or other persons with disabilities” (17 USC 121). It was this language that paved the way for the Textbooks on Time provisions included in the IDEA. However, it wasn’t until after the NFB presented a proposal for Textbooks on Time to the Congress in the year 2000 that the publishers started to work again with the NFB on this issue.

The NFB proposal, entitled “The Accessible Instructional Materials Act of 2000,” (IMAA) was presented to United States Representatives and Senators in early February 2000. The four primary objectives of this proposal were:

•  Publishers should provide electronic versions of instructional materials purchased by state and local education agencies;

•  Electronic files submitted by publishers should be compatible with Braille transcription software;

•  A national repository should be established to house and distribute the electronic files; and

•  Congress should appropriate funds for the training and development of individuals responsible for producing alternative formats, such as Braille.

In addition to meeting and negotiating with the Association of American Publishers (AAP) after the presentation of this proposal in February, 2000, the NFB met and negotiated with the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), the American Printing House for the Blind (APH), Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D), the American Council of the Blind (ACB), and the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, the Library of Congress (NLS). After many meetings throughout 2000 and into the following year, in June 2001, all parties reached agreement on a bill that was to become known as the “Instructional Materials Accessibility Act” (IMAA).

On April 24, 2002, Christopher Dodd (D-CT) and Thad Cochran (R-MS) introduced the IMAA in the U.S. Senate as S. 2246. On the same date, Thomas Petri (R-WI) and George Miller (D-CA) (the ranking democrat of the committee with jurisdiction over the bill—the Education and the Workforce Committee) introduced the IMAA in the House of Representatives as H.R. 4582. A public hearing on S. 2246 was held by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on June 28, 2002. At the hearing, Jesse Kirchner, a blind student from Connecticut, gave compelling testimony about her personal experiences with late textbooks; Barbara McCarthy, head of the Virginia Instructional Materials Center, outlined the inadequacies of the current system and presented some startling statistics about the projected long-term cost savings of the IMAA; Dr. Marc Maurer, President of the NFB, impressed upon the

Committee the need for the implementation of the IMAA to make sure that blind students receive their textbooks on-time; and former Congresswoman Pat Schroder, President and CEO of the Association of American Publishers, gave testimony supporting the need for blind and visually impaired students to receive accessible textbooks on time and highlighted the difficulties presented by the differing standards for electronic files of textbooks required by twenty-six states.

The Senate Hearing was extremely effective and gave us momentum for negotiations with members and staff of the House Education and Workforce Committee. However, at the same time, some officials in the Department of Education vocalized doubts about the need for the bill. These officials were reluctant to mandate that states adopt a uniform electronic file format standard. In addition, they expressed the hope that publishers would provide electronic texts voluntarily, and consequently there wouldn’t be a need for a national federally supervised repository center. However, publishers, as represented by the AAP, repeatedly explained to the Department of Education that there are legal and marketing reasons why legislative mandates were necessary.

The Department of Education, and specifically the Assistant Secretary of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, Robert Pasternack, had become a major roadblock to the adoption of the IMAA. But the NFB and the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC) would not be thwarted in the effort to guarantee blind students textbooks on time. Members of the NFB, NOPBC, and other stakeholders flooded the Department of Education with emails, phone calls, and letters in support of IMAA, and demanding that blind students receive their textbooks at the same time as their sighted peers. To buy some time and to perhaps appease the IMAA supporters, the Department of Education gave a grant to the National Center for Accessing the General Curriculum (NCAC) at the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) to study and create a national electronic file format standard. In view of the Department of Education’s position on the matter, this standard would be strictly voluntary. CAST put together an advisory committee primarily made up of representatives from the blindness field, but also some from other disability groups. On this committee, Mrs. Barbara Cheadle represented the NOPBC and Mr. Curtis Chong represented the NFB.

CAST released their report in July 2004. In it, the committee set forth the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard (NIMAS). CAST also reported that to be truly successful in providing books on time to blind, visually impaired, and print disabled students, a central repository would need to be established. The release of this report was delayed by the Department of Education, which a cynic might assume was because the report did not support the department’s case for not establishing a central repository.

In the meantime, both the House and the Senate incorporated provisions of the IMAA into their legislation to reauthorize the IDEA. While the Senate version included all of the important provisions of the IMAA (the mandatory electronic file format and the national access center) the House version only provided for the mandatory electronic file format. After much negotiation, some of it contentious, the language in the Senate version of the bill to reauthorize the IDEA won out.

The final IDEA provisions established a National Instructional Materials Access Center (Center), to be housed within the American Printing House for the Blind and mandated that publishers provide electronic files to the Center in the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard (NIMAS) format. Insistence by the House of Representatives resulted in a provision that allows states and local education agencies to “opt out” of using the Center. It is not expected that many (if any) states or local education agencies will chose to opt out. If a state or local education agency does decide to opt out of using the Center, those states or local education agencies will have to provide assurances that blind students will receive textbooks in an alternative format in a timely manner.

What these provisions will mean for the education of blind and visually impaired primary and secondary school students cannot be overstated. If it is expected that sighted students need textbooks in order to learn, then blind and visually impaired students also need textbooks. However, for decades blind students have been expected to wait as much as six or more months to receive their textbooks. With these provisions the time delay will be significantly decreased. The system put in place by the Textbooks on Time provision in the IDEA will reduce duplication of efforts and will speed up the conversion process through the use of a file format that is compatible with Braille conversion software. The day has come for Textbooks on Time to be transformed from a dream into everyday reality for blind and visually impaired students throughout the country.

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