A bill introduced into both the House and the Senate April 24 promises to improve access to textbooks dramatically for students who are blind or have other disabilities that impair their use of printed material.

If the legislation is enacted, states and local school districts that receive federal funding would have two years to make sure visually impaired students can access all educational materials at the same time as their peers.

Educators would have help from textbook publishers, who would be required to submit electronic files of all textbooks according to a universal standard, making it easier for schools to convert instructional materials into accessible formats.

“Far too often, blind and visually impaired students must wait months while their local school districts convert their textbooks into Braille—and at the same time school districts face exorbitant costs for these conversions,” said Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., who serves as chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Children and Families.

A Connecticut high school student said she spent hours last week scanning her textbook so she could access it.

“A lot of our books are available in tape [format], and tapes are useful and everything, but … my history book that I needed this week was totally and completely blank,” said Jessie Kirchner, a junior at Guilford High School in Connecticut, a visually impaired student who spoke at a press conference announcing the legislation.

The bill, dubbed the Instructional Materials Accessibility Act of 2002 (H.R. 4582 and S. 2246), would create an efficient system for acquiring and distributing instructional materials in a variety of specialized formats, including Braille, synthesized speech, digital text, digital audio, and large print.

To do this, one standard electronic format for converting school textbooks into Braille for visually impaired students would be established.

“Twenty-six states presently require publishers to provide a copy of these textbooks in electronic format,” Dodd said. However, there is no standard in practice to regulate this process, so schools have been getting textbooks in a variety of file formats.

In addition to adopting a standardized, national electronic file format, the bill would set aside $1 million to create a central depository, or clearinghouse, called the National Instructional Materials Access Center for easier and faster access to these materials.

The bill “makes it easier for publishers to know where to send the files, and it makes it easy for schools to know where to go to get these files,” said Paul Schroeder, vice president for government relations at the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB).

Textbook publishers would have to provide schools with a written agreement that says they agree to submit electronic files of their books to the center within 30 days.

“As more and more books go into the center, it will become an automatic process for any new book that gets published,” Schroeder said.

The legislation is cosponsored by Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss.; Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa; Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky.; Rep. Tom Petri, R-Wis.; and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif. It is also supported by the National Federation of the Blind and the Association of American Publishers (AAP).

“We are very committed to our work to ensure that all students, including those who are blind or print-disabled, have access to textbooks and materials that they need and can use,” said former Congresswoman Pat Schroeder, president and chief executive of AAP.

A national electronic file format and depository would have far-reaching benefits, said Carl R. Augusto, president and chief executive of AFB: “With the [Instructional Materials Accessibility Act], we are witnessing the start of something truly ground-breaking.”

In addition to the $1 million to develop the center, $5 million would be available for the first few years to help states pay for the technology needed to make use of the electronic files.

Related links:
Instructional Materials Accessibility Act of 2002
http://www.afb.org/info_document_view.asp?DocumentID=1705

American Foundation for the Blind
http://www.afb.org

Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn.
http://dodd.senate.gov

Association of American Publishers
http://www.publishers.org