Making the Written Word Easier for Readers with Print Disabilities

National Center for Technology Innovation
Making the Written Word Easier for Readers with Print Disabilities

As a kindergarten and first grade student, Stacy loved going to school. She enjoyed the classroom activities that helped her learn and looked forward to socializing with her friends. By the time Stacy reached the second grade, she did not like going to school as much. Most of her classmates were reading short stories, but she struggled to read complete sentences. Stacy and her family eventually discovered that she had a reading disability. The learning specialist in Stacy's school identified a number of strategies to help Stacy with her reading. One of them involved using special software which highlighted and read words aloud along with Stacy.

Many parents are in need of solutions to help their children with reading difficulties. Using technology-aided instruction is one way to address this serious issue. Policy makers created the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard (NIMAS) when writing special education legislation such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004, known as IDEA. This was done to make certain that qualifying student with disabilities receive textbooks and other important materials in an accessible format at the same time as their fellow students.

Due to the great need for information about this topic, LD Online and the National Center for Technology Innovation have devoted an Info Brief for Frequently Asked Questions about text formats, with an emphasis on the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard (NIMAS). Much of this brief is anchored in two documents produced by  LDOnLine and by the NIMAS Technical Assistance Center: Accessible Textbooks: A Guide for Parents of Children with Learning Disabilities and An Educator's Guide to Making Textbooks Accessible and Usable for Students with Learning Disabilities. The questions and answers below explain the many aspects of these changes and their potential for meeting the needs of students.

What is e-text?

Many people read printed text with little or no difficulty. Standard forms of text format might entail black font displayed on a white background, like that found in books and newspapers. However, alternative text formats can be more flexible, depending on the learners' needs. E-text, which refers to digitized text, makes alternatives possible. For example, e-text might be spoken out loud, displayed in special color combinations, presented in different styles, enlarged, or a displayed in a combination of these formats.

Has government provided guidance for facilitating production and distribution of e-text?

Yes! The authors of IDEA 2004 created the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard (NIMAS) to make certain that qualifying student with disabilities receive textbooks and other important materials in an accessible format at the same time as their fellow students. NIMAS involves XML, a mark-up language that codes text and other information for a variety of uses. Under IDEA 2004, schools and districts that receive federal funds must ask publishers to deliver textbook files that meet NIMAS. The XML mark-up language provides a common coding language to create e-text. This facilitates transforming the e-text into alternative formats such as Braille, digital talking books, and large print in a more efficient manner than traditional approaches.

What is a practical example of how NIMAS can help?

Take, for example, the story of Stacey, a second grade student who has a reading disability. Stacy needs the words of a book read aloud to her. Someone is not always available to read to her, so technology is used to serve this purpose. This requires the book to be scanned into a file and for the file to be uploaded on a computer or other piece of hardware. Traditional practices would require the Stacey's paraprofessional to scan information into a software application, read the entire text for errors and revise the text before it is ready to be read aloud by a screen reader. This process can take a long time to complete. The time delay may cause Stacy to receive materials late and to fall behind in class. Acquiring a NIMAS e-text file of the book would eliminate much of the preparation, thus making instructional materials more easily accessible to Stacey and other students with special needs.

My child would benefit from alternative text formats. How can I inquire about securing such curricular materials for her?

Then National Instructional Materials Access Center (NIMAC) at the American Printing House for the Blind serves as a central repository for publisher files. It provides a nationwide system to supply accessible versions of core instructional materials such as textbooks and related products to students who qualify with a print disability. A designated state representative or coordinator is responsible for accessing the NIMAC. Although parents cannot receive files directly, sometimes, parents have found that they must take the initiative to inform their school system of this type of resource.

The NIMAC has not been presented as an option by my child's school to help with her print disability. What is the best way to advocate for this resource?

Although NIMAC files can be accessed only by users authorized through the state, parents may access the NIMAC database to determine if NIMAS files for a particular textbook are available. The NIMAC database can be accessed at To start the process of acquiring NIMAC files, consider the following steps:

  • Contact your local or regional special education or assistive technology specialist to request accessible, student-ready versions of print instructional materials created from NIMAS file-sets.
  • Contact your state agency for assistive technology (find contact information at to request accessible, student ready versions created from NIMAS files.
  • Contact your state's primary contact for NIMAS/NIMAC to determine which accessible media producers are eligible to receive NIMAS file-sets from the NIMAC and to transform them into accessible, student-ready versions.

What approaches can I take immediately for accessing e-text?

When the print material is needed in alternate formats immediately, text can be scanned into a scan-and-read text reader. You can find several products which have this capability reviewed in the TechMatrix ( by searching in the Subject Area: Reading and Learning Support: Access to multiple formats of text, notation, and symbols. When the assigned reading is a commercially published textbook, you may want to try (see below) to see if a copy of the book has already been scanned to share.

Student choice allows for a far wider array of options for digital text. Following are some collections and websites where you can find digital text for students:

  • Accessible Book Collection- This is a subscription collection of popular titles as e-books for children and youth, targeting high interest-low reading level materials. Subscriptions are available to students with a documented disability or as a license to a school or institution.
  • Assistive Media- Assistive Media provides audio access to reading materials for anyone with a reading access barrier. Talented volunteers record magazine articles and other short works which are then available for download or in the website's podcast. The site contains hundreds of recordings of magazine articles, short stories, and selections from anthologies.
  • is the world's largest accessible library of scanned books and periodicals. The website provides people with print-related disabilities in the United States access to over 31,100 books and 150 periodicals. These resources are converted to Braille, large print or text to speech audio files.
  • The Library of Congress, National Library Services for the Blind and Physically Handicapped- The National Library Services for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) administers a free library program of Braille and audio materials circulated to eligible borrowers in the United States by postage-free mail. This service is made possible through a national network of cooperating libraries.
  • Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic- Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic offers students with a documented print disability with access to a national library of over 40,000 audio textbooks. Access is offered through membership, and the library consists of books appropriate for early elementary grades through college, graduate studies, and post graduate and career development reading. Users can listen to digital files on CD's in DAISY format.
  • National Center for Blind Youth in Science- This website is a clearinghouse of information and resources regarding blind youth and science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects and careers. Users may find information about how to adapt science lessons, where to find accessible math programs, and some of the most effective non-visual techniques in the STEM areas.

How can I find out more about NIMAS?

The websites listed below provide useful information about NIMAS:

  • NIMAS Technical Assistance Center at CAST- This website offers an array of information pertaining to NIMAS, including an synopsis of the history behind NIMAS, an explanation of the core technologies behind NIMAS, and an overview of technical assistance available to state and school system personnel to support the implementation of NIMAS.
  • United States Department of Education- This section of the official website of the IDEA 2004 regulations includes a topic brief which describes how NIMAS fits into IDEA 2004 regulations, archived presentations, and teacher training materials.

Webcasts About NIMAS

  • NIMAS 101: What You Need to Know- This resource is an archived Webinar hosted by the Center for Implementing Technology in Education (CITEd). NIMAS 101 provided an overview of the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard (NIMAS) language within IDEA 2004, the NIMAS regulations, policies related to implementation, TA and the role of NIMAC, the national source file repository. Discussion focused on ways to use NIMAS source files to produce student ready accessible versions of textbooks and related instructional materials. Presented by Chuck Hitchcock, director of NIMAS Technical Assistance Center.
  • NIMAS: Implementation Issues and Solutions- This resource is an archived Webinar hosted by the Center for Implementing Technology in Education (CITEd). NIMAS: What you need to know addresses how the NIMAS standard affects educators. Expert presenters discuss implementation issues faced by schools and districts, as well as solutions that are being tried. Presented by Chuck Hitchcock, director of NIMAS Technical Assistance Center and Ruth Ziolkowski, president of Don Johnston, Inc.
  • NIMAS in IDEA, What You Need To Know Now- This resource is a transcript of a Webcast hosted by The National Center on Disability and Access to Education addressing NIMAS in IDEA. The Webcast features three panelists: Chuck Hitchcock, director of NIMAS Technical Assistance Center; Jessica Brodey, an attorney and a public policy advocate; and Catherine Benitz, a program specialist at the Mountain Plains Regional Resource Center.
Posted on BrainLine November 22, 2010.

A "Tech Works" brief from the National Center for Technology Innovation (NCTI), 2008. Used with permission.