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Accessible Textbooks: A Guide for Parents of Children with Learning Disabilities

If your child cannot read their textbooks, they need digital copies of their books. Schools now can use National Instructional Material Accessibility Standard (NIMAS) to get e-text. Learn the details that will help you advocate for your child so they can use NIMAS. And learn where to find the publishers and producers that provide e-text.

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As the parent of a student with learning disabilities, you want to do all that you can to enable your child to learn in school. In some cases, you need to be sure that teachers and school staff understand that the printed materials they rely on—textbooks—may be inappropriate for your child’s use. Even if your child’s reading level isn’t as high as his or her classmates, they nevertheless need to understand the material that the other students are learning.

How can they do it? By using materials that work for them—materials that allow them to hear text spoken out loud, displayed in custom color combinations, in different fonts, in larger sizes, or in any of these combinations. This flexibility is a key factor in moving schools towards universal design for learning—learning environments that are designed to meet the needs of all students—including students with learning disabilities.

National policy-makers have realized that students with disabilities need access to the same materials as their fellow students. During the reauthorization of IDEA, 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. Your school system is responsible for accessing the NIMAC and, as a parent, you can not receive files directly. However, sometimes parents have to take the lead in informing their school system of this type of resource.

Supported reading software—Allowing your child to hear text

Today’s technology allows words to be read aloud by a computer using synthetic speech. This occurs through the use of “supported reading software.” Many software programs allow text to be highlighted as it is read. Some programs can automatically read a whole page. Others offer study skill features such as looking up words in a dictionary or glossary, highlighting colors, or copying and pasting text.

You will need to try different software programs to figure out which one is good for your child. Their school should offer this technology to help your child and you need to put it in their IEP.

Regardless of the choices of your child’s school, it may be helpful to introduce your child to supported reading software early, at home, so they can use it to understand complicated material as they learn to read.

Free NaturalReader(opens in a new window) and ReadPlease(opens in a new window) are good products to use on your home computer to test out whether or not your child would benefit from text-to-speech support. For Mac users, Tex-Edit Plus(opens in a new window) comes bundled with OS X system software and offers many features. Some of these supported reading products allow you to download synthetic speech on MP3 portable devices. To learn more about supported reading software and to compare features, see the Beyond the Text Project(opens in a new window) from the National Center on Accessible Media. This resource contains many options from high to low cost.

Where can I get e-text?

You can try to get e-text yourself or request it through your school system. It is hoped that e-text will become available along with printed books, just as audio books are now available online and in bookstores. Today, you will need to do some hard work. Following are some ways to find e-text.

Text publishers and commercial sources

More and more curriculum publishers are offering accessible e-text versions of their print materials. In the future, it is hoped that these options will regularly be offered for sale alongside their print counterparts.

For a sampling of web sites that offer e-texts for sale, visit the following:

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 two most prominent organizations 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 the book, such as to a particular part or section of the book. To “read” the book, a “DAISY-complaint” 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. Designed for educators, this site provides useful information on how to use these resources to support learning.

Both and RFB&D charge a fee to individuals and institutions that use them. They are establishing collaborations with 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 digital talking books, 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 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, 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. 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 the 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:

  • PDFAloud from TextHelp Systems,
  • ReadOutLoud from Don Johnston, Inc., and
  • PDF Equalizer from Premier Assistive Technology.

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:

  • Adobe Acrobat Reader, and
  • Microsoft Reader

Working through the school system

If your child finds supported reading software useful, then you need to acquire the text he or she needs in an accessible format.

  • Special education services

    If your child is currently receiving special education services, their IEP team has the responsibility to determine if he or she requires alternate-format materials. It is their school’s responsibility to provide materials. LD OnLine has extensive information on working with your child’s IEP team(opens in a new window) to get the right services for your child. The NIMAS/NIMAC system may be a source that the school can use.

  • Regular education services

    Your child may also be eligible to receive e-text as part of a plan under Section 504. They may be eligible for materials from national organizations such as RFB&D or, either via an institutional or an individual membership.

How the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard (NIMAS) can help

The authors of IDEA 2004 created the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard (NIMAS) and the National Instructional Materials Access Center (NIMAC) to assure that qualifying students with disabilities receive textbooks and other important materials in an accessible format at the same time as their fellow students.

The policies and technologies associated with the NIMAS/NIMAC system are complex and developing. There are variations in each state. Parents may consult the NIMAC database(opens in a new window) to determine if NIMAS files for a particular textbook are available, but these can only be accessed by users authorized by the state. 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 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 to assist you in acquiring accessible, student-ready versions created from NIMAS filesets.
  • Contact your state’s primary contact 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

  • Hot Tip!

    It is important to be aware that NIMAS files are not meant for classroom use, but provide the source files that are the foundation for subsequent creation of student-ready versions by Accessible Media Producers (AMPs). This intermediary step is important since the technology upon which NIMAS source files are based is designed to be flexible enough to allow the content to be “rendered” in many ways.

The Importance of the IEP Process

According to the National Library Service, Library of Congress, students qualify for alternate-format materials 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 NIMS/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.

The NIMAS centers at CAST have posted some suggested accessible instructional materials language(opens in a new window) online for inclusion in a student’s IEP (if an IEP team makes the determination that a student requires accessible, alternate-format versions of textbooks and other instructional materials due to difficulties using print versions).

  • Hot Tip!

    It should be noted that regardless of whether or not a student with learning disabilities or dyslexia is determined to be eligible for NIMAS-derived materials, the local school or district still has the responsibility for providing accessible versions to any student deemed in need of them.

This Quick Guide emphasizes accessible materials for student with reading disabilities and dyslexia, and how to identify, locate, and acquire those materials. Far from being the end goal, however, the increased availability of accessible instructional materials is, in fact, the first step towards Universal Design for Learning.

A vision for the future: Universal design for learning

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is not “one size fits all,” but precisely the opposite: multiple ways of accessing, expressing, and engaging with information and learning. Universal Design for Learning seeks to maintain high achievement expectations, including their associated challenges, while simultaneously decreasing the barriers that exist in all aspects of the traditional curriculum-goals, methods, materials, and assessment-through the application of three guiding principles.

The three principles of Universal Design for Learning-multiple representations of information, multiple means of expression, multiple means of engagement-provide benchmarks for each of the four components of the curriculum referenced above, and they are most often applied to instructional materials, and often (mistakenly) limited to accessibility. While accessibility is an essential prerequisite of UDL-oriented curriculum materials, it is vital to distinguish between access to information and access to learning. Accessible materials facilitate access to information, and UDL facilitates access to learning.

Getting more information

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 a history of 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).

For more information on how technology can help your child, go to Ask the Tech Expert(opens in a new window), where Dr. Tracy Gray answers your questions.

Visit our section on Technology(opens in a new window) for more articles.

And for a guide to technology tools for learning, go to the TechMatrix(opens in a new window).

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