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Cynthia D. Waddell, JD, Executive Director
Law, Policy and Technology Accessibility Consultant
International Center for Disability Resources on the Internet (ICDRI)
1677 Fairwood Avenue, Suite 200
San Jose, California 95125-4939 USA
Phone: (408) 266-3822
FAX: (408) 266-4566
Although access to textbooks for students who are blind or who have other print disabilities is a civil right in the U.S., the availability of accessible electronic textbooks continues to be a challenge in both traditional learning environments and in long-distance learning. This paper provides a general overview of the current issues surrounding Federal and State laws and electronic textbooks as well as proposed federal legislation seeking to improve the situation as of the writing of this paper.
Federal Civil Rights
A number of federal civil rights laws provide for students with disabilities to have equal access to the learning environment and the provisions vary depending on the students and entities covered. For example, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is an anti-discrimination statute that applies to any education program or activity as long as the program or activity receives Federal financial assistance. Another federal law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), requires that public schools make available to all eligible children with disabilities a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment appropriate to their individual needs. The U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights is responsible for vigorous enforcement of Section 504 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The enforcement of IDEA, however, is through a variety of mechanisms in this complex statute.
Providing every student with a textbook is not enough if the print medium is inaccessible to students with various disabilities due to physical, sensory, or cognitive barriers. For example, providing textbooks in print format is a barrier for students who are dyslexic and are totally inaccessible to blind students. Technology now enables these textbooks to be accessible through conversion to accessible electronic formats. These formats provide great flexibility for meeting the needs of all students with disabilities since the digital format can be read out loud by a computer or screen reader or printed on a Braille printer. However, there are many issues surrounding the delivery of accessible electronic textbooks to every student with a disability. This paper explores some of these issues.
Copyright Law Amendment of 1996 - The Chafee Amendment
This landmark revision of U.S. copyright law provides an exception to the general rule that all users of copyright protected works must obtain permission prior to reproducing or distributing a work. The amendment enables certain authorized entities to reproduce or distribute copies of a broad range of previously published literary works in specialized formats, such as Braille, audio or digital text, exclusively for use by blind or other persons with disabilities. Authorized entities must screen recipients and provide access to their collections to qualified individuals.
Under the statute, an "authorized entity" is a nonprofit organization or a government agency that has a primary mission to provide specialized services relating to training, education, or adaptive reading or information access needs of blind or other persons with disabilities
State Laws and Impact on Publishers
Many States have adopted laws addressing the provision of accessible curriculum materials in education. These laws and State processes vary in their approach to the problem. The conversion of textbooks to accessible electronic formats can be achieved through one of three approaches:
State laws addressing the delivery system for accessible electronic textbooks vary widely across the country and there is no consistency as to the electronic standard or format. For example, effective July 1, 2003, the State of Kentucky gives preferential procurement status to publishers providing alternative formats for textbooks (with XML as the default format) and requires public school textbook publishers to create electronic versions of their printed textbooks. The State of California requires publishers of K-12 instructional materials to provide the State with computer files or other electronic versions of each state-adopted literary title as well as the right to transcribe, reproduce, modify and distribute the material in formats for students with disabilities. The State of Texas requires that publishers provide electronic versions of printed textbooks upon request and the State of Maryland requires State officials to buy from publishers providing accessible alternative formats.
In the area of long-distance learning, the State of Minnesota requires web sites to be accessible and to comply with the federal Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility Standards issued through the strengthening of Section 508 through the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998. This requirement applies to all State of Minnesota primary college and university Web sites, department sites and online instructional materials.
The patchwork of State and local government requirements means that publishers must be prepared to produce multiple electronic files in different formats for each of their textbooks or other instructional materials. At this time, file formats widely used by publishers in final production of instructional materials cannot be converted for use in reproducing materials in specialized formats. For this reason, publishers must engage in a labor-intensive process for conversion into an electronic file. Publishers are also subject to increased risk that their textbooks can be reproduced and distributed without their authorization.
Standards for Electronic Textbooks
At this time there are no uniform standards for electronic file conversions. In order to address this problem, legislation has been proposed by Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut. The bill is called the Instructional Materials Accessibility Act of 2002 (IMAA) and would dramatically improve access to textbooks for students with disabilities. The IMAA mandates the adoption of a standardized, national electronic file format where publishers of instructional materials will be required to submit an electronic file of all textbooks in a universal file format. Senator Dodd noted that approximately 26 States have already passed laws requiring publishers to provide textbooks in electronic formats to help in Braille conversion. But since there has been no standard to regulate this process, schools have been receiving textbooks in a variety of formats. The bill requires the Department of Education to develop the Instructional Materials Accessibility Standards that shall:
Since electronic textbooks would be created under this accessibility standard, educational institutions will benefit from a consistent, high quality and it will be easier for schools to convert instructional materials into accessible formats.
IMAA also sets aside $1 million to create a central depository for these files for quick access subject to copyright restrictions and provides for State and local education agencies to develop and implement statewide plans to ensure access for students with disabilities. Enforcement will be available through the rights, remedies and procedures available under the IDEA and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
It is possible that since the Digital Talking Book standard is already endorsed by the National Information Standards Organization (NISO), it may be a leading candidate for adoption under the IMAA.
The IMAA was drafted collaboratively by the American Council of the Blind, American Foundation of the Blind (AFB), American Printing House for the Blind, Association of American Publishers (AAP), Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired, National Federation of the Blind, and Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic, in concert with a number of other national groups.
It is time for a national standard and process for ensuring that students with disabilities have equal access to electronic textbooks.
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