An instructional technology specialist in New Jersey recently pointed out to me an accessibility standard for state textbooks in the United States called NIMAS or National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard. Information can be obtained from the American Foundation for the Blind and the Center for Applied Special Technology. "One of the great things about standards, is that there are so many to choose from!" said a wise and witty individual once-upon-a-time. How true that is! The first thing that I wanted to find out was how did this standard differ from what the US Section 508 law requires, and the W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines already offer?
This particular requirement is impacting textbook publishers first and foremost, as well as the state and local departments of education, as set forth by the US Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 (IDEA). The main part of the standard is that it provides a common, XML-based file format for textbooks and other instructional materials, so that they can be centrally archived and published in alternative, accessible formats such as braille and digital text that can then be read back by assistive or "screen-reading" software. Guidelines like WCAG are primarily intended for HTML/XHTML+CSS web pages, but the W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative also encompasses Rich Internet Applications.
NIMAS is good news, as it ensures students with visual disabilities have equal access to learning materials. But there are two key words here I want to point out: "content" and "alternative". The material (content) is in an additional (alternative) format to be used with assistive technology like the DAISY/NISO Digital Talking Book. And that’s a good thing, as it is all about the content, and the presentation should not hinder access to learning, as print publications and many older (and unfortunately, current) web sites do.
However, NIMAS implies that publishers and state and local agencies have to deal with the burden of managing multiple formats for the same publication, albeit a burden that must and should be carried considering the goal. One of the good things about the W3C’s accessibility guidelines is that it provides a means for all web content to be accessible, whilst at the same time have presentation that is clear and easy to follow for those who can see the screen i.e. one piece of content, multiple reading channels.
PDF is related to all this too. It’s already a common format for educators and publishers to use for learning materials (yes, eBooks are back!), as well as being the number 2 file format for documents on the internet today (after HTML). It’s also a document format required by NIMAS for submitting and storing images. But PDF is typically thought of – and used – as a presentation format for consistent viewing of content on screen and in print. It can, however, also be used a single source for content that can be richly formatted and be interactive with assistive technologies.
By default, PDF’s created using the PDFMaker that comes with Acrobat 5.0 and later include structure or tags that make it somewhat accessible, but not completely. In order to ensure PDF learning materials are completely accessible when opened with Acrobat or Reader, a document author or producer must use the tools available to them in the Professional version of Acrobat. Version 8 of Acrobat Professional includes a number of tools to not only verify that PDF documents are fully accessible and comply with W3C guidelines, but also has tools to add information to the document that allows authors, publishers and producers to ensure their documents work with assistive technology correctly, irrespective of how they were created. For example, adding alternative text to images and form objects, and defining a reading order for a highly stylized document that may have been created with Adobe InDesign, say.
But what should be included in a PDF to ensure a document is accessible to students? That brings us to yet another standard: PDF/UA or PDF, Universal Accessibility, which is currently a draft. The PDF/UA Committee, under the auspices of AIIM, is creating a set of guidelines to what should be included in a conforming PDF so that it is truly accessible by all. It’s a promising, important and large effort in ensuring the same PDF-based content students use to learn from can also be viewed by those who have special needs. I hope organizations like the AFB are paying close attention to this emerging standard, and consider it as part of their own guidelines and requirements, especially since their target audience is already used to working with – and has workflows around – the ubiquitous PDF format.
As mentioned on the AIIM web site and the committee’s wiki, PDF/UA is not a "how-to". If you’re looking for that kind of information, I suggest taking a look at the resources that Adobe provides on its accessibility pages. The information here was created for Acrobat and Reader 7.0, but is still relevant to those of you who are using Acrobat 8 and would like to learn more about this. It’s informative reading that I suggest anyone in education take, even if just to be enlightened about what should be done to make sure documents – any document – are accessible to our students and colleagues with special needs.