Students with disabilities can anticipate faster access to curriculum materials now that the U.S. Department of Education (ED) has formally endorsed a voluntary national publishing paradigm known as the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard (NIMAS). The standard will make it easier to convert traditional textbooks into formats such as Braille or text-to-speech.

The department made the announcement in July at an event marking the 14th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“President Bush believes that every single child can learn and deserves the opportunity to learn,” said Eugene Hickok, deputy secretary of education, on behalf of Secretary Rod Paige. “We’re taking another step toward this goal with a new, voluntary standard that will enable students and teachers to more quickly access general curriculum materials, thereby opening more doors of opportunity to students.”

The endorsement is significant because a handful of states, including Arizona, Kentucky, New Mexico, and, New York, already had passed laws that require publishers to provide electronic copies of textbooks in whatever file format ED endorses.

NIMAS was developed and agreed upon last fall by a federally funded 40-member panel representing content-transformation organizations, educators, disability advocates, and curriculum publishers.

William (Skip) Stahl, director of technical assistance for the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), attributes the timing of ED’s decision to the deadlock in Congress over the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

“Because the IDEA reauthorization didn’t look like it was moving forward before the election, the department wanted to finally put its stake in the sand and endorse” the format, Stahl said.

Both the House and Senate versions of the IDEA reauthorization bills contain a mandate to states to adopt NIMAS as a requirement for receiving IDEA funds. Both versions have passed their respective chambers of Congress but still must go to a joint conference committee to reconcile the differences and then be adopted in final form in the House and Senate before going to the President.

“The endorsement is [also] significant because we don’t know if the references to NIMAS will remain there,” Stahl said.

At least 26 states have passed accessible textbook legislation, and these states have asked the textbook publishers to provide electronic versions of students’ textbooks in a variety of formats–in some cases, Microsoft Word; in others, ASCII or QuarkXpress files.

“If that procedure were to continue, we might end up with 50 different file formats,” Stahl said.

NIMAS simply asks publishers to provide an XML (Extensible Markup Language) version alongside each book, so the organizations that transform textbooks into accessible formats can do so more easily.

The panel chose XML as its standard file format because it allows publishers to tag the structural and semantic components of textbooks–such as chapters, chapter headings, glossaries, indexes, images, tables of contents, or key questions.

The XML file will not be a student-ready version, but it nevertheless will give organizations a single, consistent file format so they can streamline their entire transformation operations and get books out to students faster.

“Right now, to get a Braille version of any textbook can take six weeks to six months. With the adoption of NIMAS, there shouldn’t be any delay at all,” Stahl said. Getting materials to students with disabilities in a timely manner could help schools meet their Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) requirements under the No Child Left Behind Act, too, he added.

The American Association of Publishers, which represents textbook publishers such as McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin, has supported the new publishing standard, despite the extra burden it puts on publishers.

“It’s going to add additional levels of cost and complexity,” said Stephan Driesler, executive director of the group’s school division. “This XML file format is not something [publishers] are using routinely.”

But, down the road, it will be better than bending to the file-format whims of all 50 states, Driesler said. Plus, publishers have up to two years to implement the standard, assuming it is mandated in the final reauthorization of IDEA.

NIMAS was developed under the leadership of the federally funded National Center for Accessing the General Curriculum (NCAC) at CAST, a nonprofit education research and development organization.


U.S. Department of Education

National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard

Center for Applied Special Technology

American Association of Publishers