Future Reflections                                                                                      Summer/Fall, 2002

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Textbooks on Time: Update on the Instructional Materials Accessibility Act (IMAA)

by James McCarthy, Assistant Director Governmental Affairs, NFB

Barbara Cheadle, President
National Organization of Parents of Blind Children

One of the most chronic problems encountered by blind and visually impaired children all across the nation is getting textbooks on time. The tales of Braille or large print textbooks which arrive months after schools start—or sometimes not at all—are legion. These real-life stories cover every region of the country; urban and rural areas; all grade levels from elementary through high school; and wealthy school districts as well as poorer school districts. The irony is that we have the technology to solve this problem. So, what’s the hold-up?

In the Fall 2000, volume 20, number 4, issue of Future Reflections, we printed an article by Kristen Cox titled, “Textbooks on Time: Will it Ever Happen for the Blind?” (Readers may remember the cartoon that accompanied the article—it is reprinted with this article, too.) Mrs. Cox described step-by-step the process for converting print textbooks into alternative formats, and explained where in that process the hang-ups occurred in getting textbooks on time. She then outlined a legislative proposal by the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) that would dramatically improve the situation. The key element to this proposal was that publishers would be required to provide school districts with a specialized electronic file of any instructional materials purchased by the school district. Some 300 Federationists—including parents and blind students—presented this concept to members of the Senate and the House of Representatives at the Washington D.C. Seminar in February 2000.

Following that action, the NFB arranged to have a meeting in April 2000, with the American Association of Publishers (AAP) and other affected groups. It was at that point that we began to work on specific legislative language. We completed this process in June 2001, when all parties reached agreement on a bill, now known as the Instructional Materials Accessibility Act—the IMAA. Although modifications were made to the original proposal of the NFB, the key element—a uniform electronic format provided by publishers to school districts—remained. (For information about the other provisions in the current IMAA proposal, please see the background information about IMAA at the conclusion of this article).

On April 24, 2002, the IMAA was introduced in the U.S. Senate as S. 2246 by Christopher Dodd (D) of Connecticut and Thad Cochran (R) of Mississippi, and in the House of Representatives as H.R. 4582, by Thomas Petri (R) of Wisconsin and George Miller (D) of California. The bills are now in committee. The Senate bill, S. 2246, is in the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, chaired by Senator Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, and the House bill, H.R. 4582 is in the Education and Workforce Committee, chaired by John A. Boehner (R) of Ohio.

A public hearing on S. 2246 was held on June 28 by the Senate committee. Jesse Kirchner, a blind student from Connecticut, gave compelling testimony about her personal experiences with tardy textbooks; and 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 should it be implemented. Also testifying were Dr. Marc Maurer, President of the NFB, and former Congresswoman Pat Schroder, President and CEO of the Association of American Publishers (AAP). The Senate Hearing was extremely effective, and straight to the point. It established a strong record for passing the legislation this year.

The Senate hearing gave us momentum for negotiations with members and staff of the House Education and Workforce Committee; however, around that same time, some officials in the Department of Education vocalized doubts about the need for the bill. They expressed the hope that publishers will provide the electronic texts voluntarily, and therefore there would be no need for a national federally-supervised repository center. (Please note that publishers, as represented by the AAP, have voluntarily participated in the formulation of IMAA, and are actively supporting its passage. Representatives of the AAP have explained that there are legal and marketing reasons why legislation is required.) These points are under discussion as of the middle of August 2002, and we are optimistic about resolving them. With an agreement this can happen very fast. Without an agreement, the bills might languish in committee until session adjourns, and then we will have to start over again in January of 2003.

One thing we know for sure, whether this year or next, or the next— “Textbooks on Time” will become a reality for blind students. We have what it takes to get it done: the technology, the partnership with industry, the unity of purpose among blindness organizations/agencies, and the goodwill of the public. Most of all we—the blind in partnership with parents and teachers—have the persistence and the determination to keep at it until we prevail.



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