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AFBAmerican Foundation®
for the Blind

Expanding possibilities for people with vision loss

AFB Cautiously Applauds Changes to Special Education Law

Carrie Fernandez (212) 502-7674 or

(November 22, 2004) WASHINGTON—For students who are blind or visually impaired, waiting six months or longer for a textbook used to be routine, but thanks to the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Friday, children who are blind or visually impaired will soon have the same access to educational materials as their sighted peers.

"While not everything we would have wanted, this is a historic step forward to ensuring that all children who are blind or visually impaired receive the education they deserve," said Paul Schroeder, vice president, program and policy group. "However, these changes are meaningless unless the Department of Education vigorously implements and enforces the new accessible instructional material provisions."

The bill passed last Friday includes, for the first time, specific requirements addressing the accessibility of textbooks provided to children with print-related disabilities. These requirements include:

  • the establishment of a standard format for the production of textbooks in electronic (computer) files enabling conversion into accessible formats such as braille, large print, or digital text);
  • state education agencies and local schools must use this new file format and are encouraged to require publishers of textbooks they purchase to produced these files; and
  • the establishment of a central repository for the storage and distribution of these files (enabling publishers and schools alike to easily disseminate these new files to those who need them).

The concepts embodied in the legislation are the result of years of effort among advocates for people who are blind, textbook publishers, and producers of specialized material for people with print disabilities. The national file format, known as the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard (NIMAS), takes advantage of new technologies for producing text and converting it into accessible formats such as braille or large print. The concept of a central repository, known as the National Instructional Material Access Center, was a major hurdle slowing adoption of these provisions. However, the inclusion of this "one-stop-shop" provision, along with language mandating publishing standards for the preparation of electronic versions of textbooks and related core materials, was considered critical by advocates to ensure that teachers spend their time teaching instead of hunting down accessible materials for their students.

The federal special education law, originally passed in 1975, and amended several times since, guarantees children with disabilities access to a free, appropriate public education and appropriate supports and services, such as instruction in braille, orientation and mobility instruction, and textbooks and other instructional materials in accessible formats. The bill passed Friday is H.R. 1350, the "Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004."


The American Foundation for the Blind—the organization to which Helen Keller devoted her life—is a national nonprofit that works to expand the opportunities of the 10 million Americans who are blind or visually impaired. Visit AFB online at

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