For the blind and visually impaired new technology has literally opened up the doors to education. They can listen to a textbook on a computer or read it using refreshable Braille. Yet students with print disabilities have had to wait six months or longer for an accessible textbook to be made available to them.

This is set to change, however, thanks to a reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Educational Act (IDEA). The act, signed by President Bush on December 3, 2004 is geared to give students with visual disabilities the same access to educational materials as their sighted peers.

Key to the effectiveness of this act is the requirement of a standard national file format for the production of textbooks in electronic files. This will make conversion into accessible formats such as braille, large print or digital text much faster.

“The new standard is an historic milestone,” says Mark Gross, president of Data Conversion Laboratory (DCL), a New York-based technology firm involved in the conversion of textbooks into accessible formats and a supporter of the new standard.

“Like Eli Whitney’s invention of interchangeable parts which led to the industrial revolution, an accepted standard will revolutionize preparation of materials for the blind and visually impaired.”

It will also standardize the tools that make use of these materials, such as braille readers and computer and display equipment, adds Gross.

The act stipulates that state education agencies and local schools must use this new file format. It also encourages them to demand that the publishers from whom they buy textbooks produce their materials in these files. Having publishers do this as part of the publication process would reduce costs for education organizations.

Digital Talking Book

The new national file format is based on an ANSI NISO standard and the text portions of it are referred to as Digital Talking Book (DTBook), an XML standard coordinated by the DAISY Consortium and the Library of Congress’ National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS).

The non-profit DAISY Consortium is promoting DAISY (Digital Accessible Information System) XML standards throughout the world and urges publishers to provide materials in the new file format.

“Publishers can help libraries serving persons with disabilities by providing XML files in DTBook or in other XML vocabularies that can be transformed to this rapidly advancing standard,” says George Kerscher, secretary general for the DAISY Consortium.

Data Conversion Laboratory will be providing conversion to DTBook, beginning in February, as part of its Books2Bytes service. “The new service will allow authorized organizations to quickly and easily produce materials without needing to make a capital investment, and without long term commitments – as they can do this one book at a time,” says Gross.

Central store

Another important requirement of the act is the establishment of a central repository for the storage and distribution of the new standardized files.

“A national file repository would allow publishers, schools and colleges alike to disseminate files to those who need them” says Gross, “and it would also reduce duplication of effort.”

The inclusion of this “one-stop-shop” provision was considered critical by advocates to ensure that teachers spend more time teaching rather than hunting down accessible materials for their students.