Future Reflections                                                                                      Summer/Fall, 2002

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Why We Need the Instructional Materials Accessibility Act—IMAA


In the mid-nineteenth century, states established centralized schools for the blind to educate blind and visually impaired students. To support this, Congress authorized the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) in Louisville, Kentucky, to produce educational materials in alternative formats, including Braille. Today, APH continues to fulfill this function, receiving annual appropriations for this purpose.

In the 1960’s blind children first began to attend schools in their home communities in significant numbers and, today, the vast majority do so. As a result, Braille, audio, and large print books must be obtained or created by any local school district having one or more blind children. Converting printed instructional materials into “specialized formats” such as Braille is often time-consuming, labor-intensive, and costly, taking six or more months and several thousand dollars to complete. Relying on APH alone cannot fulfill the need. Therefore, it is the exception—not the rule—for blind students to have access to required textbooks at the same time as their sighted classmates.

Existing Law:

The Americans with Disabilities Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and other federal laws clearly establish the policy that individuals with disabilities are entitled to equal treatment in all areas of society. However, the successful implementation of these laws does not occur without clear, specific, and practical standards and systems in place to anticipate accessibility needs. Currently, there are no federal laws that create standards to facilitate the production of textbooks in Braille.

Twenty-six states have responded to this need by requiring publishers to provide electronic copies of print editions of textbooks. However, there is no consistent file format used among the states, and the electronic copies provided by publishers are frequently not usable for Braille reproduction at all. Therefore, inconsistent and often conflicting state requirements place burdensome obligations on publishers without efficiently facilitating more timely production of books in accessible formats. An agreed-upon, uniform electronic file format would reduce the burden to publishers and significantly reduce the cost of creation, while helping to provide materials to blind students at the same time they are provided to others.

Proposed Legislation—the IMAA

Congress should enact the “Instructional Materials Accessibility Act,”—IMAA—which has been negotiated by textbook publishers, the National Federation of the Blind, and other affected groups. This legislation will ensure that blind and visually impaired students will not be left behind in having the textbooks they need in a form they can use. 

This legislation would:

— Develop a uniform electronic file format for instructional materials prepared by publishers, and

— Require publishers to produce a copy of each textbook in the uniform electronic file format and furnish it to a central repository for distribution to schools.

 Benefits and Costs:             

The principle benefit of this legislation will be a uniform electronic file format. This will allow rapid creation of textbooks in the desired format for each student, sighted or blind. For students who read Braille, their books can be presented through the use of synthetic speech or stored and read with small computers which display Braille dots.

Without this legislation, local school districts will continue to bear the burden and cost of converting printed books into Braille. However, modern technology can now support shifting much of this responsibility to publishers without placing an undue burden on them. This legislation does not remove the school’s responsibility to provide materials, but will institute a shared burden between the schools that teach the children and the publishers that create the books. The effect will be a uniform electronic file format and national distribution center.

This shared obligation between school and publisher has been carefully crafted with publishers fully engaged in the effort to create it. Although publishers have agreed to provide electronic books, nothing can happen without federal legislation to establish procedures and create a federally-supervised national
distribution center.

For more information about the IMAA and how you can help, contact

James McCarthy
Assistant Director of Governmental Affairs National Federation of the Blind
1800 Johnson Street
Baltimore, Maryland 21230
(410) 659-9314, extension 240 jmccarthy@nfb.org

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