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Vol. 10, No. 3 Summer/Fall 2002

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Senate Subcommittee on Children and Families Holds Hearing on Instructional Materials Accessibility Act

On June 28, Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT) chaired a hearing about the Instructional Materials Accessibility Act (IMAA), S. 2246. Witnesses at the hearing were Pat Schroeder, President and CEO of the Association of American Publishers and former member of Congress; Jessie Kirchner, a senior at Guilford High School in Guilford, Connecticut; Dr. Mark Maurer, President of the National Federation of the Blind; and Barbara McCarthy, Director of the Library Resource Center of Virginia's Department for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

Senator Dodd noted that while the ADA and IDEA call for access to education for all people with disabilities, too often that access is denied because textbooks are not available in alternative formats in a timely fashion. While 26 states have laws requiring publishers to provide textbooks in electronic formats, there is no uniformity to those formats. Publishers waste time creating many different types of formats that comply with the different laws. S. 2246 requires one uniform file format to ease the burden on publishers and on the conversion process. It creates a National Instructional Materials Access Center where all school systems can access textbooks on electronic files and it provides funds to school systems to support the conversion of files into Braille.

Senator Dodd noted that Representatives Tom Petri (R-WI) and George Miller (D-CA) have introduced the bill in the House. Sen. Dodd would like to see the bill enacted into law before the end of the year. Sen. Dodd noted that if he could he would name this bill after his sister Carol, who is legally blind and a teacher in Connecticut. He witnessed the herculean efforts his parents made to ensure that she had access to information so that she could complete her studies.

Pat Schroeder testified that the publishers wholeheartedly support this bill and hope it will be enacted this year. She noted it would go a long way to address the chaotic, costly and ineffective process followed now when trying to provide texts to students in alternative formats.

Jessie Kirchner described the process she undergoes in attempting to secure the proper texts for her classes. She must request the texts by March for the following year. Usually class schedules are not made up by March, so she often must guess what she might be taking. If she is in a class that is a prerequisite for another class, she doesn't know until the class is over at the end of the semester whether she will qualify to take the higher level course. She noted that in her math class she had no book for months because it took so long for it to be converted to Braille. She said that books on tape are less effective than Braille because the student can't turn the page in class and stay with the teacher. "Having a text book in class should be a right, not a privilege," she concluded.

Mark Maurer noted that his mother learned Braille herself and transcribed all of his books so he could get through school. It is not fair to put this burden on families, he noted. In order to keep the promise of No Child Left Behind, this legislation needs to be enacted, he said.

Barbara McCarthy explained how the system works in Virginia. She noted that they just received 5 requests for Braille textbooks for the coming school year. One of the books is a 1183 page biology book. She said that it will take 9 months to Braille that book at a cost of $16,562. If the system envisioned in S. 2246 were in place, it would take one week to Braille the book and it would cost $785.

Senator Dodd noted that of the 94,000 K-12 school children who are visually impaired, only 5000 use Braille. Witnesses said that knowledge of Braille correlates highly with the employment rate of blind people. While the employment rate of all blind people is 32%, it is 90% for those who use Braille. More Braille texts and more teachers who use Braille are needed.

Senator Dodd concluded the hearing noting that with a small financial investment (the bill costs about $1 million per year after a $5 million start up investment), a huge difference can be made.

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