The U.S. Department of Education (ED) is spending nearly $200,000 to create a single “national file format” that will be used to make textbooks accessible to blind or disabled students.

Adopting the standard will be voluntary, which is contrary to legislation introduced last spring that would have required textbook publishers to submit electronic files of all textbooks sold to schools nationwide according to a universal standard.

That bill, dubbed the Instructional Materials Accessibility Act of 2002 (H.R. 4582 and S. 2246), has been held up in committee. In the meantime, ED is taking the initiative to create a voluntary standard to coordinate the efforts of publishers and educators.

“Since there is not yet agreement regarding the optimal file format standard for all students, a national voluntary standard would provide a baseline for future development and enhancements,” said Robert H. Pasternack, ED’s assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services.

The National Center on Accessing the General Curriculum at the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) in Wakefield, Mass., is charged with forming an advisory panel that will develop, implement, and measure the standard’s success.

With current practices, students who need alternatives to traditional textbooks often wait months before receiving their books.

“If you’ve purchased a new textbook that isn’t available in Braille, you may have to wait six months,” said Chuck Hitchcock, chief educational technology officer for CAST. “What [the national file format] will do is ensure that kids get their textbooks and materials at the beginning of the year, at the same time as other kids.”

When publishers make a textbook, it is assumed that shortly thereafter they will create a digital file that educators can use to convert the textbook into an accessible format for disabled students, such as refreshable Braille, print Braille, or accessible hypertext markup language (HTML).

“The problem for the publishers is that every state requires something different,” Hitchcock said. Kentucky, for example, requires documents in HTML format, while Texas requires American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII) format.

In fact, half of the states have passed legislation in the past few years that stipulate what digital format publishers must provide, whether it’s Microsoft Word, ASCII, HTML, or another format.

Publishers also favor creating a single format because it will reduce the burden and costs associated with providing multiple formats of the same file. But uniformity won’t happen with a voluntary standard, they say.

“We are working with CAST, trying to come up with a workable file format and hoping for the best. But, in all honesty, it’s not going to address the needs that are there,” said Stephen Driesler, executive director of the Association of American Publishers.

“If all 26 states [that have adopted their own standards] go out and have an epiphany … and say, ‘We need to change and adopt this national file format,’ then I’ll eat my words,” Driesler said.

Hitchcock said it’s pretty likely that states will adopt the standard, but Driesler remains skeptical that 26 states would change their laws—especially not in the near future.

“The practical reality is nothing is going to happen [in 2002]. It would be [2003] before state legislatures could do anything,” Driesler said. “Having worked with state legislatures and state departments of education, these things just don’t work at a high rate of speed.”

He added, “It’s totally going to be up to the states to make this happen.”

Texas is one of the states that has its own law regarding the format of digital textbook files.

“I don’t believe our agency would be opposed per se, but we need to see the devil in the details to see how well [ED’s proposal] fits our needs and the work of our braillist,” said Chuck Mayo, assistant director of textbook administration for the Texas Education Agency.

See these related links:

National File Format Initiative http://www.cast.org/ncac/ NationalFileFormat3138.cfm

Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) http://www.cast.org

CAST’s National Center on Accessing the General Curriculum http://www.cast.org/ncac

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