Braille Monitor                                                             March 2007

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Leveling the Playing Field: Providing Blind Students with Accessible Textbooks in Higher Education

To require higher education textbook publishers to produce electronic editions for the blind in an accessible standard format.

Despite advances in publishing technology, access to textbooks used in college courses remains a difficult burden for blind students and higher education institutions. Sporadic help to meet the need for accessible texts is provided by on-campus disabled student service offices, by libraries for the blind in some states, and by service organizations including RFB&D (formerly Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic) and These organizations create audio and electronic editions of many textbooks. Publishers, however, currently do little or nothing to support production of accessible texts.

The Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD), which represents over 1,500 postsecondary institutions, acknowledges the legal duty of institutions to meet access needs of blind students. Without greater support from textbook publishers, however, institutions cannot meet this obligation.

Existing Law:
The Americans with Disabilities Act; Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended; and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act articulate the policy that individuals with disabilities are entitled to equal access to education. Successful implementation of this policy cannot occur, however, without clear, specific, and practical standards and procedures designed to address accessibility needs. At present no specific law to support ready access to higher education textbooks for blind students exists.

By contrast, publishers of elementary and secondary school textbooks must produce electronic editions prepared in an accessible, nonvisual format that meets a federally prescribed national standard. This requirement is part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, Public Law 108-446, signed by President Bush in December 2004. Under this new law the U.S. Department of Education has issued a National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard. Publishers must prepare electronic editions of textbooks sold to elementary and secondary schools in accordance with this national standard. The publishers meet their responsibilities by placing one electronic copy of each edition of a textbook in a national access center managed by the American Printing House for the Blind. This approach offers a model for similar procedures that could also be applied in higher education.

Need for Legislation:
Preparation of textbooks in an accessible, nonvisual format is an achievable and reasonable expectation because of changing methods of textbook publishing. In fact, though printed editions remain essentially the norm, electronic editions of higher education texts and supplemental materials are becoming far more common. This trend toward using computers to access books will inevitably continue and expand over time. However, no standards for nonvisual use exist for books prepared in print or electronic formats. Therefore higher education institutions and taxpayer-funded programs continue to struggle with the burden of providing blind students with the assistance and support needed to achieve access.

With appropriate technology now available, publishers can produce textbooks in accordance with a national access standard but lack any incentive to do so. Recognizing this, eight states--Arkansas, California, Kentucky, Michigan, New Mexico, New York, Nevada, and Washington--have enacted laws requiring nonvisual access to college texts, with other states actively considering similar legislation. These state laws offer an important first step toward access, but impose an array of conflicting and inconsistent obligations on publishers. This patchwork of requirements underscores the need for legislation to establish a national standard.

Proposed Legislation:
Congress should enact the Higher Education Textbook Access Act. This legislation will assure that blind college students and instructors have access to instructional texts comparable to that available to blind elementary and secondary school students.

The legislation would:

Requested Action:

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