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Universal Design for Textbooks: NIMAS – National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard

Universal Design for Textbooks: NIMAS – National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard

Traditional textbooks, like any standardized learning technology, are much more accessible to some learners than others. For students who are blind, who have physical disabilities, or who have reading disabilities, textbooks impose barriers rather than opportunities for learning. In the past, each classroom teacher or school had to generate some kind of work-around to overcome these barriers – contracting for a Braille version of the book, engaging an aide to help with the physical demands of textbooks, recording or purchasing an audio version for students with dyslexia, and so forth. The costs - in time, resources, learning opportunities – of retrofitting in these ways are high. Most important, the costs of such one-off accommodations are repeated in every classroom and district throughout the country – a staggering waste of money and time.

In 2006 a very new and more universally designed approach was mandated by the U.S. Congress. In that year, regulations for NIMAS – the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard – went into effect. That standard stipulates that all U.S. textbooks be available as a “digital source file” (a fully marked up XML source file based on the Daisy international standard). The power of that digital source file is in its flexibility: It can be easily transformed into many different student-ready versions, including a Braille book, a digital talking book, a large-text version, and so forth. The same content can be generated once by a publisher but can be displayed in many different ways to match the different needs of diverse students.

The dramatic effect of the NIMAS legislation is not really in the technology itself, but in the change in how we think about diversity that the technology promotes. The conceptual shift is evident in that Congress calls for schools to provide alternative versions for all students who have “print disabilities.” In that remarkable wording shift, “learning disabilities” to “print disabilities,” lies a profound alteration in the response to diversity and disability. By recognizing that many learning problems are resident not just in the child but in the medium of instruction, the NIMAS legislation also recognizes that the limits of print are too costly for American education. Printed textbooks cannot adequately meet the challenge of diversity, and we will need to shift our educational practices to new technologies that – through more universal designs – are equitable and effective for all of our learners.

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