Future Reflections Fall 2000, Vol. 19 No. 4 

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Textbooks On Time: Will It Ever Happen for the Blind?

by Kristin Cox


Kristin Cox
Kristin Cox

 Editor’s Note: Kristin Cox is the Assistant Director of Governmental Affairs of the National Federation of the Blind. She is also a dynamic young woman who knows from her own experience growing up as a blind child the importance of a good education. Inherent in our society’s definition of a good education is the assumption that children will have the materials—textbooks, workbooks, etc.—they need so that they may learn. Parents know that when the first day of school rolls around children will be coming home with backpacks stuffed with books handed out to them by their new teachers. We expect this. But what happens if a child doesn’t get his/her textbooks on the first day? Or the second day? Or even a month later? Such a scenario is almost unthinkable to the average parent. Yet, this very thing happens to hundreds of children around the country year after year. Here is what Kristin Cox has to say about the timely provision of textbooks to blind children:


Johnny is an active, enthusiastic and curious sixth grader. Along with many of his friends, Johnny had mixed emotions about going back to school this year. “I like school, and I like being with my friends, but I am a little nervous and hope I will do well,” he said. Some of the challenges Johnny faces this year are unique and not typically experienced by other sixth graders. Johnny is blind.

For Johnny, obtaining accessible versions of instructional materials and texts is critical if he is to succeed in school. Over one month into the school year Johnny still does not have the Braille copy of his history book and only segments of his math book have arrived. Already he feels behind and struggles to keep up with his classmates in his history and math classes.

Unfortunately Johnny’s story is far too common among blind students. This is true even though parents of blind students, schools, teachers, publishers, and others are usually well-intended and work hard to provide blind students prompt access to instructional materials. So, why then all of the problems?

In this article, we will discuss both the answers to this question as well as possible solutions. But first, we must begin with a description of how accessible formats are acquired.

Acquiring Accessible Formats of Instructional Materials

Any meaningful discussion about Braille in the classroom must include the role of the Individualized Education Program (IEP). The IEP is the blue print from which a student’s successful education is built. It should reflect the IEP team’s fundamental belief that the blind student should have access to the same instructional materials at the same time that their sighted peers do.

Parents, along with the other members of the IEP team, must carefully craft clear and strong language that ensures that all instructional materials are available in accessible formats, such as Braille. Sometimes the IEP may stipulate that textbooks should be converted into Braille, but may leave out workbooks, supplemental, and testing materials. The IEP team should think through all of the possible instances during the child’s classroom education in which print materials would need to be converted into accessible formats.

However, avoid the temptation to create exhaustive lists which are finite. Fixed lists cannot account for the unpredicted needs which inevitably pop-up throughout the child’s education. Instead, incorporate language that is inclusive and comprehensive.


The Selection of Instructional Materials for Classroom Use

The process of selecting and approving the use of instructional materials for classroom use differs depending on the 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.

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 will 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.


How and Where to Locate Accessible Instructional Materials

With the text selection process completed, the compilation of a specific list of texts and other materials the blind student will need for the upcoming school year can begin. This process should begin as early as possible. Typically the responsibility for doing this lies with the Teacher of the Visually Impaired (TVI). Once this information is collected, the TVI or other designated individual must locate, purchase, or produce the accessible versions of the materials. For Braille and electronic texts, there are three primary resources available to accomplish this.

First, each fiscal year the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) receives an appropriation from the federal government for the production and distribution of accessible instructional materials and supplies for legally blind students. APH is then charged with crediting “designated ex officio trustees” with funds to purchase accessible instructional materials and supplies based on the number of blind students served by that particular agency. Ex officio trustees are simply agencies designated by state departments of education. Such agencies may be statewide instructional resource centers, schools for the blind, etc. In essence, the designated agency has a prepaid credit line with APH from which accessible instructional materials and supplies can be purchased. Requests from individual school districts for accessible materials available through this program must flow through their state’s designated ex officio agency.

Second, states may contribute their own resources for the production and purchase of accessible instructional materials. Some states allocate these funds to an already established instructional resource center. Other states distribute the funds to media centers, school districts, and like entities throughout the state. 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.

The production of accessible formats by different instructional resource centers, schools, and other agencies could result in duplication of effort. To avoid this, APH houses the Louis Database of Accessible Formats for people who are blind or visually impaired. This third resource acts as a centralized clearinghouse of over 145,000 titles in accessible formats produced by over 200 agencies. Educators, administrators, and parents can locate valuable information about the existence and location of textbooks and other educational materials in accessible formats as well as other relevant data. The sharing of accessible formats helps minimize the costs and substantial efforts associated with the conversion process.


A boy with a cane leaning against his desk is sitting in a classroom with other kids.   He is the only kid without a textbook on his desk.   The teacher standing in front of the class is saying: "Open your books class, and we'll begin our journey into American History"  The boy is frowning and he is thinking to himself"By the time I get my Braille textbook, this semester will be history.


The Mechanics of Converting Instructional Materials into Accessible Formats

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 used to produce non-visual formats, such as Braille, or synthetic speech. The conversion of a single textbook can take at least six months 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 books are typically more difficult to convert into alternative formats such as Braille.

In order to streamline the conversion process, fifteen states require publishers to provide an electronic version of any textbook that a state or local educational agency purchases. The electronic version can then be quickly converted to a non-visual format. However, electronic formatting standards vary from state to state. These incongruities naturally lead to inefficient duplication for publishers. Even more important, the standards are imprecise and often result in file formats that cannot be easily used for the purpose intended.

Even with an electronic version of the text, high quality Braille still depends on the competency of Braille transcribers and proofreaders. Certification helps in determining the baseline competence of these individuals. The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) offers a variety of courses which lead to the certification of Braille transcribers and proofreaders. Certification does not guarantee high quality and standardized Braille production, but it does help.

Unfortunately, not all states use certified transcribers. This may be due to either the lack of commitment to high quality Braille on the part of the state, or the lack of competent Braille transcribers in the area. Some states rely on volunteer transcribers, but this group is rapidly decreasing in number.


How to Streamline the Conversion Process: The National Federation of the Blind’s Proposal

 Although some states have made modest progress toward giving blind students non-visual access to relevant educational information, their solutions are, at best, partial and unable to address the systemic issues involved. The National Federation of the Blind is committed to ensuring that all blind children have equal access to instruction materials. To this end, the National Federation of the Blind supports streamlining the process of converting instructional materials into accessible formats. We recognize that no one single solution will speak to all of the varying components of the process. However, there is one approach we are working on that, if implemented, would significantly further the progress of the prompt and accurate conversion of information into accessible formats.

During the annual NFB Washington Seminar in 2000 the National Federation of the Blind introduced a legislative proposal entitled, “The Accessible Instructional Materials Act of 2000.” If enacted, the proposal would implement four primary objectives:

¨ 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.

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

Through this approach, the provision of electronic files (now limited to a handful of states) will benefit all schools and state agencies across the country. More importantly, the proposal will create a uniform electronic file-formatting standard that promotes the efficient, accurate, and prompt conversion of materials into accessible formats. This standardized approach will also serve publishers by eliminating individual and inconsistent state requirements. Furthermore, the appropriation of funds for training and development will support on-going efforts to ensure the competence of alternative format producers.

Soon after our Washington Seminar, we entered into negotiations with the Association of American Publishers and other stakeholders to build consensus and support for the proposal. There have been some modifications to the proposal as a result of these ongoing negotiations. However, the objectives outlined above have been and will continue to be the cornerstones to our legislative effort.

Members of Congress generally support our approach. However, the possibility of enacting this legislation will not occur until the convening of the new Congress in 2001.


How You Can Make A Difference

Parents, in particular, can play an important role in the acquisition of accessible instructional materials. Here are some ways parents can make a difference:

1. If possible, bring a credible and knowledgeable advocate to your IEP meetings. Advocates offer a wealth of experience, knowledge, and the support parents often need while developing and implementing the IEP.

2. Encourage your states, school districts, and schools to adopt policies which provide adequate time between the point of approving texts for classroom use and the beginning of the school year. This will ensure that there is sufficient time to convert the instructional materials into accessible formats.

2. Work closely with the teacher of the visually impaired, classroom teachers, and school administrators to ensure that requests for accessible formats are made as soon as is practicably possible.

3. Follow up with the teacher of the visually impaired to confirm the arrival of each accessible textbook and other materials before the school year begins. It is not uncommon for a parent to learn that only part of a text was converted into Braille, or, that a workbook did not arrive at all. Make a list of everything your child will need for the upcoming school year and check it off as it arrives. Too often parents will not realize, until a month or two into the school year, that an important text has not arrived.

4. Become active in the National Federation of the Blind. The Federation offers resources, invaluable information, and the opportunity to network with other parents of blind children. Equally important, the Federation acts as a collective voice for the blind. Through our collective efforts, laws, and policies societal opinions can be shaped and changed for the better.

5. Provide your child with positive blind role models. Blind adults who are successful act not just as positive role models, but can suggest alternative techniques for adapting to the classroom environment. The impact a role model can have on a blind child is immeasurable.

6. Contact members of Congress. Let your Representatives and Senators (both on the state and federal levels) know of the challenges blind students face in the classroom. Promote the idea that publishers should provide electronic versions of their texts to schools.



Almost everyone agrees that providing our blind children with a high quality, challenging education is an imperative. A good education prepares an individual to face competently the challenges of adulthood. This is even more relevant in an economy and society that places increasing value upon information.

It naturally follows, then, that when blind children cannot fully access their educational environment, the implications stretch far beyond the classroom. This is why the National Federation of the Blind has insisted, and will continue to insist, that blind children have equal access to all instructional materials used in the classroom.

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