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An Educator’s Guide to Making Textbooks Accessible and Usable for Students with Learning Disabilities

Learn how to obtain instructional materials in electronic text for your students who are dyslexic. E-text makes textbooks and other materials usable by supported reading software. Get names and links of publishers and accessible media producers to find the E-text you need. And learn how to qualify your students and obtain materials produced by the National Instructional Material Accessibility Standard (NIMAS) system.

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The challenge

As an educator, one of your key roles is helping your students with specific learning disabilities overcome their difficulties in reading, which is one of their most significant barriers to learning. You work with them on learning to read and to overcome their limitations in some or all areas of phonetic awareness, decoding, syntax, semantics, and comprehension. As you do this, however, you also want them to understand their textbooks in their subject area. This is particularly critical today as schools work to reach the goals of NCLB 200(2)b, which requires that materials used for instruction, including textbooks, be flexible and accessible enough to assure the progress of students with disabilities.

Providing flexible learning materials is one of the cornerstones of Universal Design for Learning—the creation of learning environments designed to accommodate a broad range of learning needs.

Students with reading disabilities need materials that can be easily changed to meet their needs. Information needs to be represented in many ways, including:

  • highlighting important points
  • use of various fonts, colors, and styles
  • allowing text to be spoken

This article will help you find these materials.

The potential of e-text

Today, most information is written on computers. Text is electronic and is easily transformed from one media type into another: text to speech, speech to text, etc. Unlike words printed on a page, electronic text can be altered to create different presentations. This is called e-text, and people who develop assistive technologies are using it to allow students with disabilities to read in new and more flexible ways.

E-text is currently considered a “best practice” to provide access to instructional materials for students with disabilities, including learning disabilities. It allows words to be made larger, to change colors, to talk, and to be made into other formats. E-text versions can be obtained from:

  • Publishers
  • Accessible media providers that create e-text for print-disabled students
  • The Internet (both commercial and public domain resources)
  • Scanning printed work


More and more curriculum publishers offer accessible e-text, although these providers are still limited in number. The United States Department of Education, and most publishers, disability advocates, assistive technology vendors, and educators hope and expect that alternative-format materials will be offered for sale alongside print versions, much as audio books are offered in bookstores along with regular books.

Today, however, consumers must actively search for e-text. Start with a publisher’s representative. Ask them about e-text when you begin negotiations to purchase materials. And ask later on—whenever you need them.

To determine what is currently available, try these sources:

Accessible media producers

Some national organizations are authorized to create e-text for qualifying students (see “Who is Eligible(opens in a new window)” from the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped [NLS]). The most prominent of these are:

  • in a new window) produces e-text versions of print materials, available in the DAISY format (Digital Audio Information SYstem), sometimes referred to as “Digital Talking Books” (DTBs). DTBs are recorded using the exact words of the written version. They provide a way for the reader to navigate a book, such as to a particular part or section of a book. To “read” a book, a “DAISY-compliant” text to speech player is needed, which is provided free with Bookshare membership.

  • Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic®(opens in a new window)

    Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic® distributes DTBs (AudioPlus) on CD-ROM. AudioPlus books are voice recordings that conform to the DAISY format. These products require specialized hardware for playback. The user needs a desktop or portable “player”—or AudioPlus-compatible computer software—to “read” the books. E-text versions of textbooks, both with and without images, that can be read aloud using synthetic speech, will soon be offered, as well as their traditional recordings of human audio versions. RFB&D has gone beyond their tradition of specialized four-track recorded books on cassette tape. RFB&D recently developed a new web-based resource, Learning through Listening(opens in a new window), to help educators use these resources in the classroom.

Both and RFB&D charge a fee to individuals and institutions that use them. They are establishing collaborations with the developers of supported reading software—products that can display and read e-text books aloud: Kurzweil(opens in a new window), TextHelp(opens in a new window), gh(opens in a new window), Freedom Scientific(opens in a new window), Don Johnston(opens in a new window), and others—to increase product compatibility.

  • Hot Tip! DAISY Book Players

    To use DAISY DTBs, you need supported reading software that can read the DTB format. To find this software, check the comparison chart of e-book and digital talking book (DTB) hardware and software(opens in a new window) from the Beyond the Text Project at the National Center on Accessible Media, or contact software product manufacturers directly.

  • Hot Tip! Internet e-text

    Sometimes, e-text can be found online, right on the Internet. After 95 years, most print publications emerge from copyright constraints and are often posted online in digital format. National Library Service has published a resource, Selected Sources for Electronic Texts 2005(opens in a new window), combining commercial vendors, specialized repositories, and public domain e-text libraries. The University of Texas at Austin maintains an extensive, up-to-date, and comprehensive listing of Internet e-text sites, Electronic Books(opens in a new window). Although recent textbooks would not be found online, there might be primary source material and other helpful information.

Not all e-text is accessible

A PDF (Portable Document Format) document may be a picture of a printed page, which is not useable by supported reading software. In order to “read” text, supported reading software usually uses the same system that the computer uses to select text for cutting and pasting. So, as a general rule, if you can select a document’s text, you will also be able to use assistive technology to “read” it. Only two supported reading software products are currently able to read and highlight most PDF documents. They are:

Some commercial electronic book products can read aloud (and otherwise manipulate) their respective proprietary file formats, without allowing users to copy it. Two of these are:

Creating e-text via scanning

The words from a printed book (or other product) can be made into e-text through using a scanner: a machine (hardware) which uses optical character recognition (software). It is considered a last resort because the result needs to be time-consumingly checked against a publisher’s version for accuracy. Scanning does meet the legal requirements of access laws meant to allow students to use instructional materials. If there is a legal question involving a particular student, a student’s IEP or 504 team decides (see Questions and Answers On the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standards (NIMAS).

Until publishers regularly provide accessible instructional materials, scanning will be necessary in certain cases. What is the best way to scan a document? Read “How to Effectively Scan a Book(opens in a new window)” by Kelly Pierce. The article is a classic—written several years ago, but sufficient to get you started. Two particularly important keys are:

  • Save scanned content in the most flexible and accessible format possible, such as HTML (web pages), which is useable by most supported reading software programs and is viewable on most computer screens.
  • Know the supported reading software used by each student, and be sure the file formats you create can be read by that software.

The National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard (NIMAS) Initiative

The authors of IDEA 2004 realized that students with disabilities needed their textbooks and other important materials in accessible format at the same time as their fellow students. So the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard (NIMAS) was created. A central repository for publisher files—the National Instructional Materials Access Center (NIMAC)—provides a nationwide system to supply accessible versions of core instructional materials (textbooks and related products) to qualifying students with print disabilities.

The policies and technologies associated with the NIMAS⁄NIMAC system are complex and developing. There are variations in each state. For students who qualify for NIMAS-derived materials, consult the NIMAC database(opens in a new window). Opened in December, 2006, the NIMAC provides public information about the availability of NIMAS filesets for a specific publication or series, and information about accessible, alternate-format, student-ready versions that may be available; where they are located, and how to obtain them.

Here are the steps to using the NIMAC:

  • Contact your local or regional special education or assistive technology specialist to assist you in acquiring accessible, student-ready versions of print instructional materials created from NIMAS filesets.
  • Contact your state agency for assistive technology(opens in a new window) to assist you in acquiring accessible, student-ready versions created from NIMAS filesets.
  • Contact your state’s primary contact(opens in a new window) for NIMAS⁄NIMAC to determine which accessible media producers are eligible to receive NIMAS filesets from the NIMAC and to transform them into accessible, student-ready versions.

Once state and local education agencies agree to coordinate with the NIMAC (all 50 states have indicated willingness to do so) they are then obligated to require publishers to deposit NIMAS filesets of print materials in the NIMAC or to purchase “specialized format” versions from publishers directly. Specialized formats include braille, audio, e-text, and large print versions. It is important to be aware of the fact that NIMAS files are not meant to be used by students, but instead provide the source files that are the basis for the subsequent creation of student-ready versions by organizations like RFB&D and

How do students with reading disabilities qualify?

According to the National Library Service, Library of Congress, students qualify when they are:

Persons certified by competent authority as having a reading disability resulting from organic dysfunction and of sufficient severity to prevent their reading printed material in a normal manner.

And authority is quantified as follows:

…in the case of reading disability from organic dysfunction, competent authority is defined as doctors of medicine and doctors of osteopathy who may consult with colleagues in associated disciplines.

In order to qualify a student for materials produced through the use of the NIMAS⁄NIMAC system, their IEP team must a) determine that a student is unable to read print material in a normal manner, b) needs alternate-format materials derived from NIMAS source files and c) assure that the student is certified as print-disabled by a medical doctor or osteopath.

Once a student is qualified, their IEP team can then take advantage of NIMAS⁄NIMAC resources:

  • The NIMAC database can be searched to make sure NIMAS filesets exist.
  • Once identified, the student’s IEP team can request the assistance of state and⁄or regional NIMAS resources, or
  • Their team can acquire e-text versions from RFB&D or or other locally-designated sources for use in the classroom.

Learning more

This article is meant to provide an introduction to the process of acquiring e-text versions of instructional materials for students with Specific Learning Disability and dyslexia. For a more comprehensive review of the legislative framework, copyright constrictions, and the history of the NIMAS⁄NIMAC, please refer to two articles: The Promise of Accessible Textbooks(opens in a new window) (2004) and Accessible Textbooks in the Classroom(opens in a new window) (2007). It is also hoped that this article will encourage readers to explore the potential and benefits of Universal Design for Learning, in order to assure the creation of learning environments that are effectively designed for all students.

Center for Applied Special Technology and LD OnLine, (2007). An Educator’s Guide to Making Textbooks Accessible and Usable for Students with Learning Disabilities.
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