Future Reflections          Winter/Spring 2008

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Progress and Stalemates: The Complexities of Creating a Textbooks-on-Time System for Blind Students

A Report by Pat Renfranz, Sandy Taboada, and Jill Weatherd

Editor’s Note: The authors of this report are parents of blind students and active leaders at the national level within the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC) and the National Federation of the Blind (NFB). They are also well known as advocates for blind children within their respective states of Utah, Louisiana, and Wyoming. This article comes out of a report written as a textbooks-on-time committee assignment from the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC). Here is what they have to say:

Many parents of blind children struggle with the knowledge that the general educational community seems to believe that it is acceptable for blind children’s Braille, audio, or other accessible formats of textbooks (and, by extension, other educational materials) to arrive chronically late--long after classes have begun. As parents, we--the authors of this report--have been told by our school authorities that late-arriving books are “just the way that it is.” At the NFB convention this past July in Atlanta, many parents from around the country attended an evening seminar sponsored by NOPBC entitled “Textbooks on Time: Update on NIMAS and NIMAC,” hoping to learn more about new methodologies for obtaining textbooks on time. This article grew out of a report on that session.

Getting Braille or other alternative formats of textbooks on time is the consequence of a long series of events, all of which must work in a timely fashion. Some events occur sequentially, and others occur on a parallel track. Some steps involve people with little or no appreciation for the time and effort required to produce textbooks in alternative formats, while other steps involve those with directly applicable skills, for example, transcribing and producing Braille. Here are some of the steps:

1. Textbooks for all students must be adopted according to individual state rules. In some states texts are adopted at the state level. When talking about textbook selection, such states are called adoption states. In this system local school districts (and sometimes individual schools) select which textbooks they will use from the state-approved list. Other states are considered non-adoption states. In these states texts are selected at the district level, or even sometimes school-by-school, from among all textbooks on the market. Textbook adoption comes in many flavors. School districts, in both adoption and non-adoption states, however, tend to adopt new textbooks every five to eight years.

2. Contracts for the purchase of texts are written, and states or districts purchase books as required by their schools.

3. Somehow this complex system of decision-making also involves individual teachers who, in varying degrees, play a role in deciding which books will be used in their classrooms for the following year.

Pat Renfranz4. At the district or sometimes local school level, the person in charge of ordering materials for a blind student must know which school the student will attend and each teacher that the blind student will be assigned to in the coming year. This person must contact each individual teacher to obtain a textbook list for his or her class. In many states or districts this task is assumed by the teacher of the visually impaired (TVI), but it may also be assigned to secretaries, administrative assistants, vice principals, or counselors. But let’s assume that it is the TVI. Once the TVI has the textbook list, he or she must check the student’s IEP to determine which formats are acceptable for which classes. ISBN numbers should be carefully checked, and, as the search for the textbook in the acceptable format begins, possible alternatives must be explored and identified as either acceptable or unacceptable. For example, if an older edition of a math textbook is available in Braille, but the more up-to-date edition the teacher will use is not, will the older version still be acceptable with minimal problems for the student and teacher?

5. The list of required textbooks and other required classroom books and materials is then cross-checked against various databases to see if the books/materials already exist in the required format. The TVI or someone else in the district or local school may be responsible for this, or it may be done by a centralized agency. In Utah, for example, the Educational Resource Center located on the campus of the Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind does this search. No one database is comprehensive, however. For example, the Louis database at the American Printing House for the Blind (APH), while extensive and the primary source of textbook listings (especially Braille textbooks), does not list the recreational or literary books available through the Library of Congress, National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) system. Sometimes commercially available materials from organizations such as Seedlings Braille Books for Children, Inc., or the National Braille Press are listed with these databases, and sometimes not. And books that have been individually Brailled by school districts are probably rarely registered with these databases.

6. Decisions must then be made about where to obtain the accessible materials. Textbooks can be purchased from an accessible material producer (such as APH); borrowed from another school or an agency specializing in the desired format (such as RFB&D—Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic); or produced in-state by the state resource center (if one exists), or on contract with, for example, a Braille transcriber.

7. After the search is completed and it is determined that one or more textbooks must be produced in the alternative format—Braille, recorded, or large print--then the order must be placed. Production complexity ranges dramatically depending on the type of textbook, when it was ordered, how many other orders the producer receives, how completely the district placing the order follows the instructions of the producer, and so forth. A book that requires many tactile diagrams, for example, could take many months to produce in Braille. A recorded book could be slowed down if the district sends the producer the incorrect edition or only one print copy of the text when two copies are required.

8. Produced materials must be shipped and delivered to the school. Shipments can be delayed, especially if they are shipped Free Matter for the Blind; shipments might arrive in the summer and be misplaced or lost before the school year starts; or the books might be shipped to the wrong school in the district. Braille textbooks are often cumbersome to store, and facilities must be adapted. A place in classrooms should be set aside where active volumes of books can be easily accessed by the student every day.

As you can tell, there are a lot of cracks through which the idea of Textbooks on Time can fall. One year the textbooks for one of our children were simply never ordered; in another the incorrect edition of a math textbook was ordered. In some of our states textbooks are adopted so late in the year that it has been nearly impossible for accessible versions to be ready by the start of the school year.

This overview sets the stage for a discussion of the NOPBC workshop conducted at the 2007 NFB convention. The specific subject that the textbooks-on-time workshop panel addressed was the role of NIMAS. NIMAS stands for National Instructional Materials Access Standard. NIMAS addresses only one of the steps listed above: the production of a textbook in an alternative format. This step is a crucial one and can be extremely time consuming. In order to learn more about NIMAS, Barbara Cheadle, NOPBC president, convened a panel of experts on this issue. The panel included Dr. Karen Blankenship (Iowa Department of Education and co-chair of the Steering Committee of the National Agenda for the Education of Children and Youths with Visual Impairments, Including Those with Multiple Disabilities); Marty McKenzie (access technology coordinator and statewide vision consultant, South Carolina School for the Deaf and the Blind, South Carolina Department of Education); and Jim McCarthy (program specialist, Governmental Affairs Department). We were also fortunate to be joined by Tuck Tinsley III, Ed.D. (president of the American Printing House for the Blind).

Jill WeatherdWe began with an overview of the National Instructional Materials Access Standard (NIMAS) and the National Instructional Materials Access Center (NIMAC). NIMAS was developed beginning in 2002 as a way to increase the accessibility of print instructional materials. It is, essentially, a standard that K-12 (kindergarten through twelfth grades) textbook publishers can use to format electronic files of their books. NIMAS is supposed to satisfy two concerns regarding electronic book files: (1.) to protect the textbook from copyright infringement and (2.) to standardize the electronic version of textbooks so that it is easier, faster, and more straightforward to produce a given textbook in an alternative format. NIMAS source files can be used to produce textbooks in student-ready specialized formats, such as in Braille, audio, digital text, and large print. Currently NIMAS files can be used to produce books only for K-12 students with “qualifying disabilities.”

The NIMAC is the central repository for NIMAS files. The NIMAC is housed at the American Printing House for the Blind (APH). Its function is to receive, store, and distribute publishers’ electronic files of print instructional materials in the NIMAS format. While NIMAC is housed at APH, Tuck Tinsley stressed that NIMAC is an entirely separate entity, thus freeing APH from any liability in regard to copyright infringement.

Educational materials covered by NIMAS are those considered to be core materials for K-12 students. Dr. Tinsley later clarified what this means. Within Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the term “print instructional materials” means printed textbooks and related printed core materials that are written and published primarily for use in elementary school and secondary school instruction and are required by a state educational agency (SEA) or local educational agency (LEA) for use by students in the classroom. A continuing discussion between publishers and the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) conducts an ongoing debate about what specific materials are covered by NIMAS.

Qualifying disabilities are defined as “blind and print handicapped.” Our understanding was that disagreements in defining “print handicapped” initially led to difficulty in establishing a NIMAS format with which publishers would be satisfied. This in turn has made Braille production from NIMAS files more laborious than it might have been. However, Tuck Tinsley later said that, within the language of IDEA, the term “blind or other persons with print disabilities” means those who qualify, in accordance with the federal act entitled “An Act to provide books for the adult blind” (2 U.S.C. 135a; 46 Stat. 1487), to receive books and other publications produced in specialized formats.

The Association for Educational Publishers, in a memo dated November 27, 2006, to the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs, writes that, “Indeed, no child will have access to all of the textbooks and core related materials to be submitted to the NIMAC, only to those that are used in their classroom.” This means that the NIMAS file of an accessible textbook is not available to your student if it is not in use in his or her specific classroom, even if that textbook was adopted by your state. Our research shows that the textbook publishing industry is also very concerned that NIMAS files used to produce an accessible textbook for one qualifying child could be subsequently used as a textbook for another child, qualifying or not. The U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs, however, states that, “If students are NIMAS eligible, an SEA or LEA can use the specialized format already derived from NIMAS file sets for other NIMAS-eligible students. However, SEAs and LEAs may not share these specialized formats with students who are not NIMAS eligible, even though they may benefit.”

Not every state has opted into the NIMAC system. However, according to IDEA 2004, regardless of their relationship with the NIMAC, both the state and local educational authorities are responsible for ensuring that accessible specialized formats are provided to students with print disabilities in a timely manner. On our NOPBC panel at the convention, Marty McKenzie (South Carolina) noted that there is really no good reason why a state would choose to opt out of participation in NIMAC. The states that have chosen to opt out do so typically because of fear of copyright infringement lawsuits.

Each state, we have learned, has its own process for adopting textbooks for K-12. Depending on the state, textbooks can be adopted at either the state or local level (or both). Publishers are required to provide textbook files to NIMAC after a state (or other purchasing agent) has contracted with a publisher to provide them. Indeed the requirement to send the electronic files to NIMAC should appear in the contract. Textbook adoption deadlines become important when states adopt textbooks late in the school year because this delays deposition of NIMAS-formatted electronic files of textbooks into NIMAC, which in turn delays the production of the book in an accessible format. The good news is that, according to Tuck Tinsley, as of September 2007, approximately 2,000 certified file sets are in the NIMAC repository, a very large number of which have been contributed by publishers voluntarily in advance of a purchase contract requiring their submission. Dr. Tinsley later noted that state and local representatives are still in the process of learning how to write contracts requiring the deposition of files from publishers and also how to convert the NIMAS files once they get them.

According to a presentation about NIMAS by Julia Myers and Nicole Gaines at the 2007 Getting in Touch with Literacy conference, as of October 15, 2007, forty states were coordinating with NIMAC, fifty-one Authorized Users of NIMAC, and forty-three registered Accessible Media Producers. Forty publishers were thus far participating, contributing 2,109 files, with 527 downloads. Tuck Tinsley told us that he has been “pleasantly surprised at the number of publishers who are working in advance of receiving contracts and are preparing and submitting files for materials they are currently marketing for new contracts.”

Deposited textbook files, however, are not formatted books. One important distinction that parents must recognize is that these formatted textbook files are not electronic copies of the book that can be directly embossed into Braille or placed on a student’s electronic note-taking device. The NIMAS files are not student-ready, and no one ever intended for them to be seen or used by students in this raw form. The files must first be converted to the finished specialized format by an AMP (Accessible Media Producer). NIMAC, in fact, does not work directly with students, individual schools, teachers, or parents.

When a state educational authority agrees to coordinate with NIMAC, it designates a small number of authorized users of NIMAS files. An authorized user can download the files comprising a textbook and can also designate an accessible media producer (AMP) to download files as its agent. Only these authorized users and their designated AMPs can download files from the NIMAC. So, once a book order comes into the state’s NIMAS program, the authorized user can choose the AMP to use during the ordering process. AMPs can include individuals such as Braille transcribers at your state’s school for the blind or organizations and agencies such as Prose and Cons, Bookshare, and RFB&D. Downloaded files can be converted into formats that allow for Braille production, audio production, digital-text production, and large-print production.

A list of authorized users is not publicly available. Primary state contacts for NIMAS/NIMAC are available at <http://nimas.cast.org/about/resources/nimas_nimac_contacts.html>. The over 200 AMPs can be found at <http://www.aph.org/ampdb.htm>.

Learning how to access NIMAS file sets and how to convert books from NIMAS files into user-friendly files is a challenging endeavor. With time AMPs will gain the experience required to convert NIMAS files into the necessary specialized formats, especially Braille. According to APH President Tinsley, training on how to do this conversion is offered by the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB). In the meantime SEAs and LEAs are still trying to figure out how to handle NIMAS and NIMAC.

Marty McKenzie, resource center director from South Carolina, remarked that, once an authorized user has converted the NIMAS file into another format, the user can share the reformatted file with, or produce the textbook for, others and perhaps list it on the Louis database at APH. This could potentially save a lot of time and duplication of effort among individual Braillists or other AMPs. However, textbook publishers, as represented by the AAP and the AEP are understandably wary about the easy transfer of downloaded files (they have their profit margin to protect, after all) and about how NIMAS-produced materials might be made available to students who do not qualify as blind or print-disabled. As reported in the meeting minutes from the NIMAC Development Committee Meeting in January 2007, publishers are quite concerned about what happens to digital media after an AMP has made it accessible. Can the AMP make money selling the product to multiple users? Can an AMP make the product available to students who do not strictly qualify under NIMAS criteria? Where is the protection for the intellectual property that a textbook represents? The publishing industry is formidable; hence the existence of NIMAS file formats, authorized users, authorized media producers, and the tight rules and regulations governing the use of NIMAS file sets.

There is some question about whether publishers must submit materials to NIMAC that have been published after July 2006, or if they must submit materials that are being sold after July 2006, independent of the copyright. If the requirement is interpreted that only textbooks published after July 2006 are subject to the NIMAS rules, and the typical life of a textbook is five to eight years, then a book published anytime before July 2006 could be marketed and used in your child’s classroom until 2011 or later without being subject to the NIMAS requirements.

Another important issue is that there is currently no method for using NIMAS to produce math textbooks (or other core materials in Nemeth Braille Code), nor are NIMAS files compatible with the production of tactile diagrams. Furthermore, descriptions of figures are included in the NIMAS file only if provided by the publisher. Since math and science textbooks are more difficult to produce in an alternative format in the first place, clearly we need to work with publishers to establish a file format that is compatible with science and math material production; progress is being made in this regard for good digital audio production. Also there is currently no best method to determine the “pedagogical intent” of a diagram, figure, or graph, and how to include that information in NIMAS files. Many users and supporters of NIMAS are trying to encourage publishers to include figures and graphs in a file format called SVG. This format allows for the best (so far) translation into a tactile format. Students who receive high-quality tactile graphics in their textbooks will learn the material better and will also perform better on high-stakes tests in which such professionally produced tactile graphics are highly likely to be present.

At the 2007 NOPBC workshop, several parents asked whether APH could monitor textbook production, including timeliness and quality. Dr. Tinsley was very clear on one thing: APH’s goal is for all students to receive their textbooks when needed. However, he later told NOPBC that APH cannot, unfortunately, require states to send data about when students receive their textbooks. APH could request that its ex officio trustees provide this information. (APH ex officio trustees are representatives from each state designated to collect the data APH requires for the management and distribution of the federal quota fund materials to that state.) He explained that APH had surveyed trustees to determine estimated percentages of students who do not have textbooks when needed and the time lag until they actually received them. He further said that APH plans to conduct another such survey soon.

But it seems to us that there are some potential problems with this type of survey. Essentially APH is asking the trustees, who have a stake in how their state’s educational programs for blind children are rated, to make a good faith effort to identify not only systems that work but also those that need improvement. Although Dr. Tinsley said that “timely manner” is considered to be the first day of school or the first day of the particular class, some authorities may think that merely making a good faith effort is sufficient to satisfy the goal of On Time. These biases may influence the ability of trustees to answer these questions objectively. As one parent has said, the reason we have NIMAS is because people's "reasonable efforts" kept resulting in late textbooks.

NIMAC’s role (remember, NIMAC is administered by APH, but it is totally separate from other APH functions) in this process is only one piece of the puzzle: providing immediate access to files needed to create the accessible formats.

There is some good news and, we hope, progress. In October 2007 the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) was awarded nearly $5 million from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education to speed the delivery of accessible teaching materials to students with disabilities. CAST has organized the Accessible Instructional Materials (AIM) Consortium that will, according to the CAST press release, “explore the most efficient means to provide students with disabilities the materials they need to access, participate, and achieve in the general educational curriculum.”

The AIM Consortium includes Delaware, Georgia, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, Pennsylvania, Utah, Vermont, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. The goals include developing state systems to increase the timely provision of accessible materials. If your state is listed as a member of the consortium, it may be worth contacting the person in charge in your state to see if they require feedback from users (our children) of the materials for timeliness and quality.

What needs to be done, and what can we--the consumers acting individually and collectively through NOPBC and the NFB--do to monitor and encourage continued progress toward making textbooks-on-time a reality? Here are some ideas, some of which were generated by the 2007 NOPBC workshop, some by our NOPBC committee research, and some through a recent committee meeting with the NFB Jernigan Institute Education Department, the NFB Governmental Affairs Department, and the NOPBC:

1.) If your state opted out of using the NIMAC and your student does not get his or her textbooks on time (the first day they are needed), make sure to report this to your state education agency and send a copy to the NFB Governmental Affairs Department, attention: Books on Time. Check the NFB Web site for details, <www.nfb.org>. The NFB is looking for information and trends that will help us determine if or what actions might be taken to move us closer to the goal of Textbooks on Time.

2.) Your state may be an opt-in state, but your child or student may continue to have problems with getting textbooks on time. Again, report this to your state education agency and send a copy to the NFB Governmental Affairs Department, attention: Books on Time (see above).

3.) We must support efforts allowing the production of math textbooks in the Nemeth Braille code directly from NIMAS file sets. We want to find a way to get textbook publishers to encourage their authors to include instructive descriptions of figures, where appropriate, in the NIMAS file set and, further, to encourage illustrators to format graphics so that tactile diagrams can be straightforward to produce. If you have knowledge, ideas, or connections that will help us achieve these goals, contact our NOPBC Textbooks on Time committee chairperson, Pat Renfranz at <dblair2525@msn.com>.

4.) States or school districts should be required to adopt textbooks in a timely manner so that there is time to produce them in the needed format. We can educate our LEAs and SEAs about this need and help them realize that "textbooks on time" needs to be taken literally. We can work within our state NFB affiliates and other advocacy organizations to find solutions within our states.

5.) It is currently difficult to find up-to-date listings of states participating in NIMAC. We can encourage NIMAC and/or CAST to list states that have opted to participate in the NIMAC program and also to list the registered users on a state-by-state basis.

6.) Some blind or visually impaired children are served under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act but are not being provided special education services under IDEA. Access to textbooks through the NIMAS is a condition of IDEA, not the legislation that governs rehabilitative services. There is some question in the industry about whether “504 students” are eligible to use NIMAC-deposited files or products derived from them.

SUMMARY BY PAT RENFRANZ
My father is a retired engineer. When I spoke with him about this article and the complexities of getting textbooks in alternative formats on time, he told me about Critical Path Method (CPM), a technique used in project engineering that ensures that all the steps required to complete a complex project are done on time and to proper specifications. Maybe it’s time we apply CPM to textbook ordering so that it can be a streamlined process. This would include (1) a list of all activities required to complete the project, (2) the time that each activity will take to completion, and (3) the dependencies between the activities. CPM determines which activities are critical and which can be delayed without making the project longer. In my view any delay that results in that sinking feeling that my child has when her materials are not ready would be unacceptable.

RESOURCES
This Web site has a lot of detailed information about NIMAS and an excellent FAQ page: <http://nimas.cast.org>.

This Webpage from the Department of Education has a section devoted to NIMAS/NIMAC: <http://idea.ed.gov/explore/home>.

To find out how textbooks are selected in your state, go to this site from the Education Commission of the States:
<http://www.ecs.org/ecsmain.asp?page=/html/educationIssues/ECSStateNotes.asp>.

The listing of primary state contacts for NIMAS is available at <http://nimas.cast.org/about/resources/nimas_nimac_contacts.html>.

Anyone can search the NIMAC database to see which textbooks have been deposited by publishers by going to the Web site: <http://www.nimac.us/> then selecting the link “Enter the NIMAC Repository.”

Additionally, over 200 alternative media producers are currently listed on APH’s AMP database. You can search this database by visiting: <http://www.aph.org/ampdb.htm>.

GLOSSARY
The NIMAS program is filled with lots of jargon, acronyms, and organizations with which parents may not be familiar. Here are some definitions and resources that may be of interest to you:

NIMAS stands for the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard, which is used by K–12 curriculum publishers to produce source files of a given textbook. These files can subsequently be used to produce the textbook in a specialized format such as Braille, digital text, or audio, for students with print disabilities. Standardizing the file format makes it more straightforward to convert a textbook into an accessible format. For a given textbook the full set of files includes XML content files, a package file, images, and a PDF file of the title page (or whichever page contains ISBN and copyright information).

NIMAC stands for the National Instructional Materials Access Center; in other words, this is the site where the textbook files are deposited by the book publisher. The NIMAC repository was established at the American Printing House for the Blind (APH).

CAST is the Center for Applied Special Technology. It is a nonprofit organization that, among other things, hosts the federally funded NIMAS Development and Technical Assistance centers for the delivery of accessible instructional materials. CAST is not focused exclusively on blind or visually impaired students.

SEA and LEA are the State Educational Authority and the Local Educational Authority.

AAP and AEP: The Association of American Publishers and the Association of Educational Publishers are two large trade organizations that represent publishers of textbooks and other educational materials.

SVG refers to Scalable Vector Graphics. This is a digital language used to represent graphical figures.

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