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Jeffrey C. Senge, M.S.
Information & Computer Access Program Coordinator
California State University, Fullerton
For the past 30 years, federal civil rights law has mandated private and public entities serving the general public provide equal access to their programs, services, and activities for persons with disabilities. Ensuring equally effective oral and written communications are specified as components of this responsibility. According to the U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, equally effective communications includes timeliness of delivery and accuracy of translation.
In postsecondary education, a great deal of written communication is made available to students through textbooks and other print materials. Years ago, the only way for someone who couldn't read standard print to get the information contained in a book was by having another person read it to them. For the past half century or so, this process was augmented by the availability of inexpensive methods of producing voice recordings on vinyl disks or magnetic tape. While this improved availability of print materials in an oral format, it still required a person to read the print book to make the original recording. This method of providing alternative access to print books became the norm and large collections of master recordings developed.
Unfortunately, due to the nature of the postsecondary textbook publishing business, editions of textbooks rapidly become outdated making audio recordings of those textbooks obsolete, too. As a result, many of the recorded books in these collections are no longer in demand. Therefore, obtaining current editions of textbooks in accessible formats continues to be a significant challenge for students with print disabilities and postsecondary educational institutions. This is the dilemma AB-422 was created to address.
With the invention of the personal computer running specialized software, print books can now be rendered into synthesized speech or Braille in real-time by a person with a print disability. This has made it possible for a person who cannot read standard print to independently access the same information as everyone else without having to wait for it to be read or recorded by another person. This is a tremendous leap in terms of providing program accessibility and ensuring equally effective written communications in a timely manner. However, for this to work, it not only takes a personal computer and specialized software, it also requires the print content of the textbook be converted into electronic text and be available. Without electronic files of the print content, the adapted technology is like a book with blank pages.
Currently, electronic (e-text) files of book contents are being created by either scanning and editing hardcopy books or by editing electronic files obtained directly from publishers. This process is extremely labor intensive and consumes substantial resources. In addition, it takes a considerable amount of time to render the print books into e-text causing delays to the student and putting the educational institution at risk in terms of timely delivery. In response to this situation, the California State Legislature passed Assembly Bill 422 in the fall of 1999. AB-422 amended the California Education Code to include language that now requires publishers and producers of print and non-print instructional materials sold and used in California's public postsecondary educational institutions to provide structured e-text files of those instructional materials to institutions upon request and in a timely manner.
The intent of this legislation was to place the burden of providing access to e-text files of content upon those responsible for creating and marketing the instructional materials in the first place. It was assumed those producing and marketing textbooks already possessed electronic files of the products they published and it would be a relatively simple matter for them to provide them upon special request for students who required alternative access to this information. In addition, it would effectively address the issues of timeliness of delivery and accuracy of translation. Obtaining e-text files directly from publishers would also conserve institutional resources for other worthwhile activities. Sadly, AB-422 hasn't delivered on its intent. Implementation of this innovative legislation has been far from effective.
Since going into effect on January 1, 2000, compliance with AB-422 by publishers has been dismal. Most of those producing and marketing textbooks and instructional materials have not been providing structured electronic files to California's public postsecondary institutions in accordance with the law. The two biggest problems regarding the implementation of AB-422 have to do with timeliness of delivery and electronic file structure. These are two areas that must be addressed to make this legislation work.
Obtaining electronic files of textbooks and instructional materials from publishers under AB-422 in a timely manner has proven to be challenging at best. The law specifies, "The computer files or electronic versions of the printed instructional material shall be provided to the university, college, or particular campus of the university or college at no additional cost and in a timely manner." While not being charged for the electronic files, obtaining them in a timely manner has been problematic.
Four years after the law has been in effect, many publishers still do not have a process in place to facilitate requesting the electronic files of books they provide to California's public postsecondary institutions nor do they have a way to deliver them in a timely manner if at all. This practice has continued to cause the institutions to frequently have to perform the publisher's work and produce the electronic files of the instructional materials in-house at the institution's own expense.
According to AB-422, "Computer files or electronic versions of printed instructional materials shall maintain the structural integrity of the printed instructional material, be compatible with commonly used Braille translation and speech synthesis software, and include corrections and revisions as may be necessary."
Currently, most electronic files of instructional print materials provided by publishers do not maintain the structural integrity of the printed instructional material as specified in the law. Structural elements such as page numbers, chapter and section headings, and sometimes even paragraph designations, present in the print version are usually absent in the electronic files obtained from the publisher. This creates a situation where navigating the book using the electronic files received directly from the publisher becomes extremely difficult if not impossible for the student. As a result, the institution must devote substantial resources to inserting the missing structure to the publishers files before providing the e-text to the student with the print disability.
Furthermore, both the requirement to provide electronic files compatible with commonly used Braille translation and speech synthesis software, as well as the requirement to include corrections and revisions as may be necessary to make the electronic files usable for this purpose have for the most part been ignored by the publishers. As in the case of absent document structure, addressing these compatibility issues between the publisher's electronic files and the adaptive technology or production of other alternate formats has fallen on the individual institutions.
For the past four years, the State of California has had a law in place requiring publishers of instructional materials sold in California's public postsecondary institutions to provide electronic files of their instructional materials in a structured format compatible with standard adaptive technologies and alternate media production equipment. And, they are not doing it. Many publishers are also out of legal compliance regarding timeliness of delivery of requested electronic files.
This situation has created a substantial burden for each of the segments of the California public postsecondary educational system. The cost to Cal State Fullerton alone exceeds $100,000 per year to perform the work of the publishers this law was designed to address. State-wide, the cost of performing the work resulting from the publisher's lack of compliance with AB-422 is estimated to exceed two and a half million dollars annually.
In this time of fiscal limitations, it has become increasingly difficult to ignore the lawful responsibilities of the publishers of print and non-print instructional materials sold in California's public postsecondary educational institutions. Publishers need to be made aware of their responsibilities under AB-422 and that they need to take immediate steps to comply with it to continue doing business with California's public postsecondary educational institutions. If they are unaware of their responsibilities in this regard, they must be made aware of what they need to do to comply with the law. If they don't know how to accomplish this and produce electronic files that satisfy AB-422 requirements, there are resources available to assist them. The requirements set forth in AB-422 are likely to become Federal standards before much longer so its to the publisher's advantage to develop integrated solutions to these responsibilities as soon as possible.
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