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Guidelines for Accessing Alternative Format Educational Materials

Issued March 2000

by Barbara Nail-Chiwetalu

March 1, 2000


Individuals are unable to benefit from standard print materials for a variety of reasons. Some are unable to read the print due to blindness or significant visual impairment. Others are unable to manipulate the materials due to a physical impairment such as cerebral palsy or multiple sclerosis. More recently, persons who are unable to process printed information due to a learning disability resulting from a physically-based, organic dysfunction have been included among those eligible for some alternative format services (e.g., National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped and the American Printing House for the Blind). Regardless of the reasons why a person is unable to benefit from standard print materials, students of all ages, elementary through postsecondary, require access to information in formats that will provide them with equivalent learning opportunities to those who are able to benefit from standard print. Alternative format materials include Braille, audio cassette, large print, computer diskette, CD-ROM, or human readers. Those most commonly used in educational institutions are Braille, audio cassette, and human readers, with electronic formats gaining in popularity.

Numerous factors contribute to the means by which eligible students, their parents, or educators gain access to alternative format educational materials. Of particular significance are federal, state, and local laws that address disability services in general or services for persons with severe visual or physically-based impairments in particular. Additional factors such as funding sources, organizations or persons that lend and/or produce the materials, and the degree to which services are coordinated within a given institution, school district, or state, will determine how accessible services are to an individual.

Although available resources and the existence of an identifiable "system" for obtaining alternative format materials vary at the state and local levels throughout the United States, identifiable patterns emerge that can serve as guidelines for assisting students or parents with navigating their particular "system". Following are general guidelines for students in elementary through postsecondary educational programs. Not every aspect mentioned will pertain to every individual situation. Since the "system" for elementary and secondary students differs from that of postsecondary students (primarily due to the federal laws addressing various age groups) these two groups will be addressed separately. For each group, pertinent legislation will be discussed as a background for understanding the guidelines for navigating the "system" that follow. An annotated list of resources is provided at the end.

Elementary and Secondary Students


An estimated 25,000 students with visual impairments were served by federally supported programs for school-aged students with disabilities in 1995 (National Center for Education Statistics 1997). The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), formerly known as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) of 1975, requires local school districts (referred to as Local Education Agencies (LEAs)) to provide children and youth with disabilities, ages 3-21, a free and appropriate education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE). It is important to note that States are not required to serve children ages 3-5 and 18-21 if services are inconsistent with State law or practice or the order of any court (IDEA, Part B, Subpart C, Sec. 300.300 (b)). Therefore, knowing your State laws related to disabilities is of critical importance, particularly in the transition from secondary to postsecondary education at which point the "system" changes.

By law, students with disabilities are to be provided an appropriate education and related services at no cost to them. This is made possible by the provision of federal funds to States based on the number of children with disabilities identified by a State to receive FAPE. The 1997 Amendments to IDEA require that funds through a Grants to States program be distributed for these students until a specified amount is exceeded. At that point, allocation to States is based on a number of additional factors (OSERS 1997). While a portion of these funds are used at the State-level for administrative and related needs, most of the funds provided to States are passed on to LEAs.

The law also makes specific provisions for instruction in Braille as the preferred medium. In the 1997 reauthorization of IDEA, Congress added the following provision: "The Individual Education Program (IEP) Team shall ... in the case of a child who is blind or visually impaired, provide for instruction in Braille and the use of Braille unless the IEP Team determines, after an evaluation of the child's reading and writing skills, needs, and appropriate reading and writing media (including an evaluation of the child's future needs for instruction in Braille or the use of Braille), that instruction in Braille or the use of Braille is not appropriate for the child" (U.S.C. S1414 (d) (3) (B)(iii)). (Corn and Huebner 1998, 113)

Due to the enactment of major federal legislation (IDEA) to provide FAPE to students with disabilities, States and LEAs are required to make every effort to obtain the necessary materials and services to accommodate students who are unable to benefit from standard print materials. The degree to which schools comply with the law may vary, making it important for every student and parent to be educated about their rights and to ensure that appropriate services are received by the student through the student's IEP. State or local laws may restrict the eligible age range for services or may provide additional services specifically related to alternative format materials (e.g., Ohio's Braille Law, California's Education Code). Students and/or parents would be wise to become informed about their State and local laws relative to disability services. This information may be obtained from your local school program, the main office of your local school district, or your State Department of Education.

Navigating the System

Given the provisions stated in IDEA, along with any State or local laws pertaining to the education of students with visual or other impairments, the main coordinating body for elementary and secondary services is the State Department of Education in each State. Individual States approach services differently depending on, for example, their specific laws, availability of resources, organizational structure, and the level of coordination of specific services within the State or region. Ultimately, however, direct services are under the responsibility of the LEA (i.e., the school district). In all cases, appropriate services for a given individual must be specified in the student's IEP and must be provided to the student at no cost. The organizational structure by which a school district or State provides these services will vary from State to State. Organizational structures may range from very decentralized services coordinated by teachers of the visually impaired to elaborate centralized statewide services coordinated through the State Department of Education.

Despite these variations in the provision of services, some factors remain constant. All States must comply with the provisions for services specified at the federal level through IDEA, as previously discussed. At a minimum, all students with disabilities between the ages of 5-18 must be served. State laws may also include services for students in early interventions programs (birth - 2 years), 3-5 years, and 18-21 years. Given that federal funding for providing these services is provided initially at the State level, it should be expected that the main coordinating body for the state would be each individual State Department of Education, Special Education Division. (Descriptive and contact information for the State Department of Education in each State may be found in the AFB Directory of Services.)

In addition to IDEA, also at the federal level, is the Federal Quota Program, mandated by the Congressional Act to Promote the Education of the Blind. Passed in 1879, this Act named the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) as the national source for providing specialized materials free of charge to eligible blind students in educational settings. While APH is responsible for the overall administration of this law, a network of professionals which include heads of state departments of education, rehabilitation agencies, private nonprofit schools for the blind, programs for multi-handicapped students, and superintendents of residential schools for the blind, are designated as Ex Officio Trustees of APH. These Trustees are legally entrusted with the administration of the Federal Quota Money for students within their system. An annual appropriation from Congress is divided by the total number of eligible students in educational programs for the purchase of APH materials. The method by which materials are to be delivered to students may vary; however one particularly effective approach has been the establishment of educational materials center which centralize the distribution and recirculation of these educational resources. Further information about the Federal Quota Program may be found on the APH Website at: http://www.aph.org/federal.htm. From this site, you will also find the directory of Ex Officio Trustee(s) for your State at ftp://ftp.iglou.com/members/aph/trust97.txt (October 1997). There may be several Trustees for your State. Your local school district or Special Education Division of your State Department of Education should know which Trustee is responsible for the funding to students enrolled in any given program.

The organizational structure by which each State provides services may vary depending on any of a number of factors, some of which include:

Generally, if there is not a centralized statewide system in place for accessing alternative format materials, the services will be decentralized with a designated "coordinator" for a school district or region. That person will be knowledgeable about national, regional, subregional, and local resources. Different resources may be tapped for different formats of materials (e.g., APH's online catalog, Louis, may be searched for Braille materials; a regional or subregional library of the National Library Service for the Blind and Phyically Handicapped or Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D) may be consulted for audio materials). Items that are loaned free of charge through any lending organization, whether national, regional, or local, must be returned to that agency at the end of the school term. This allows the reuse of materials by other students.

Due to the wide range of variables that may impact how a particular State or school district implements its services for persons needing alternative format materials, it is difficult to make generalizations about service patterns beyond what has been discussed thus far. States that have centralized services are much more easily described in that they tend to be driven by specific State laws and have well-developed documentation describing details of their services. Following are three examples of well-developed statewide systems.

Examples of Selected Statewide "Systems"

One example of a well-organized, statewide system is the Clearinghouse for Specialized Media and Technology (CSMT) in California. It provides accessible versions of textbooks, workbooks, and literature adopted for all public schools by the State Board of Education pursuant to the California Education Code, IDEA, ADA, and standards required by teachers statewide. CSMT is federally funded through the California Department of Education's Special Education Division with its alternative format materials funded by California's Instructional Materials Fund. Details about all aspects of their services and pertinent laws may be found at their Website at: http://cde.ca.gov/spbranch/State_Spec_Schools/csmt.htm.

Ohio also has a statewide project called ORCLISH, funded by the Ohio Department of Education, Division of Special Education. Its purpose is to serve students with low incidence and severe disabilities. In addition to the federal and state laws guiding services for persons with disabilities, Ohio has the Amended Substitute House Bill Number 164, more commonly known as Ohio's Braille Law, which requires that a print/Braille assessment is made, Braille instruction is considered, the IEP Team reviews literature describing the benefits of Braille instruction, and one or more reading and writing media for instruction is identified. Details about the services provided through ORCLISH and Ohio's Braille Law may be found on their Website at: http://schoolimprovement.ode.ohio.gov/orclish/home.html.

Texas is another example of a statewide "system" driven by State laws for persons with visual impairments through which all books on a State adoption list are brailled and available in electronic (ASCII) format for all students. A Textbook Coordinator in each school district functions as a liaison between the teacher and the State Depository in which the alternative format materials are housed and accessed through a computerized system. One particularly unique aspect of services in Texas is the provision resulting from the 72nd Texas Legislature in 1991, in which publishers of textbooks adopted by the State Board of Education are required to furnish the agency with computerized textbook files for the production of braille textbooks. For detailed information about Texas' electronic textbooks project, see their Website at: http://www.tsbvi.edu/textbooks/textbook.htm.


Services for students needing alternative format materials at the elementary and secondary levels are defined by the presence or absence of specific State laws addressing this need and numerous other factors that may be unique to a State. Services that are centralized and statewide will have an identifiable "system" by which alternative format materials may be accessed. States that rely on a more decentralized form of organization will experience much greater variability. Regardless of the organizational structure within a State, students and parents would be well-advised to become familiar with the State and local laws related to provision of services in order to ensure that the services they receive are in compliance with existing laws.

Postsecondary Students


Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, is a Federal civil rights law that protects the rights of disabled persons in any program or activity receiving federal funds. It states that a recipient of federal funds must make reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified handicapped applicant or employee, unless the recipient can demonstrate that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the operation of its program. With respect to postsecondary education, an "otherwise qualified individual with a disability" means a person who meets the standards required for admission into or participation in the educational program or activity, with or without reasonable modifications to rules, policies or practices; the removal of architectural, communication or transportation barriers; or the provisions of auxiliary aids and services. In short, an eligible student enrolled in a postsecondary institution that receives federal funds must be provided with alternative format materials as long as it does not impose undue hardship on the college or university.

The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 provides additional civil rights protection and serves as a national mandate to fully integrate individuals with disabilities into the mainstream. As an assurance that students with disabilities have equal access to University programs and services, the University is required to make "reasonable accommodations" which may include services and materials such as note takers, readers, Braille, audio recordings, and large-print materials.

Navigating the System

Due to the variability in disability support services that are provided by any given college or university, a student with a visual impairment would be wise to investigate the degree of disability support services on campus prior to enrolling in a school. Once a student is enrolled in a program of study at a college or university, the student becomes responsible for ensuring that he or she obtains the necessary alternative format educational materials. The student may be assisted in this process by disability support services on campus. The extent of resources available through the school, policies and procedures for obtaining them, and the overall amount of assistance such an office can provide, will vary from one school to another. Following are steps that students might be expected to follow.


While the extent of services provided by any given campus will vary, all schools must comply with federal laws. Lawsuits have been brought against colleges or universities that have been found to be out of compliance (Senge and Dote-Kwan 1998). The school must provide "reasonable accommodation" to support your special needs as a result of a verifiable disability. Whether the school provides the alternative format materials directly or assists you in locating a place that will lend or produce these materials, the service must be provided. The best way to ensure that your needs are met is to become thoroughly familiar with the disability support services on your campus whether they be through an office or an individual.

Additional Resources

Following is an annotated list of legal, alternative format, and related resources which complement the information presented within these guidelines.

Legal Sources

Special Law
Maintained by EdLaw, a private law practice specializing in educational law, this Website includes links to the full-text of all federal laws related to special needs.
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973
Full-text of the law
American with Disabilities Act (ADA) 1990 (P.L. 101-336), see Title II
Full-text of the law.
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Amendments of 1997
(formerly P.L. 94-142, The Education for All Handicapped Children's Act)
Full-text of the law.
Act to Promote Education of the Blind (Federal Quota Program)
A federal act, mandated in 1879, in which Congress established an annual appropriation divided among the U.S. states and territories to provide educational materials for students with visual impairments below the college level. Under this Act, the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) became the official supplier of these educational materials.
Loans of Library Materials for Blind and Other Physically Handicapped Persons
Title 36 Code of Federal Regulations that outlines the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, Library of Congress program for loaning library materials. Includes eligibility requirements and the role of regional libraries.

Alternative Format Materials Sources

American Printing House for the Blind (APH)
All ages. Provides products and services to blind and visually impaired persons. Products include Braille, large type, recorded, computer disk, tactile graphic publications, and a wide assortment of educational and daily living products. Its database, Louis, provides a listing of materials available in alternative formats from organizations across North America.
A database of accessible materials for people who are blind or have visual impairment maintained by the American Printing House for the Blind (APH). Includes a comprehensive listing of large type, Braille, recorded, computer disk, and tactile graphic productions available in North America.
Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D)
All ages. Considered the nation's leading educational lending library of academic and professional textbooks on audio tape from elementary through post-graduate and professional levels. Relies on contributions from donors and volunteers.
Braille and Talking Books Libraries
All ages. Regional and subregional libraries of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS/BPH), Library of Congress. Free of cost to eligible members. Services include books in Braille and recorded formats, magazines, equipment on loan, catalogs, bibliographies, music materials, and educational print and audiovisual materials about blindness, disability, and rehabilitation. These materials are generally for pleasure reading (i.e., not textbooks).
Talking Tapes (Textbooks on Tape)
All ages. A nonprofit organization that provides textbooks on audio tape for individuals from elementary through post-graduate school. Services provided to schools, teachers, parents, and students. School districts or individuals may apply for services. Minimal cost per item.
The Accessible Text Consortium
Postsecondary. Formed in 1995 to help college and university service providers meet needs of students with print disabilities. Attempts to link programs which record books for text-impaired students at institutions across North America. Membership required to borrow but not to browse the online catalog. Fee-based.
World Wide Braille Producers
All ages. Maintained by the Braille Planet, a list of braille producers, some of which have Web pages. Organized by USA zip code numbers.
Alternative Formats to Print Sources
Postsecondary. Maintained by the University of Waterloo, Canada, it provides links to catalogues and indexes for all formats and alternative format to print projects.

Other Resources Related to Alternative Format Materials or Services

State Departments of Education
A list of links to the State Department of Education in each state.
State Vocational Rehabilitation Agencies
A list of links to State Vocational Rehabilitation Agencies and Commissions for the Blind.
Twentieth Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of IDEA
Full-text of the report may be downloaded.
American Foundation for the Blind. 1997.
AFB Directory of Services for Blind and Visually Impaired Persons in the United States and Canada, 25th ed. New York: AFB Press.


Corn, Anne L., and Kathleen Mary Huebner. 1998.
A Report to the Nation: The National Agenda for the Education of Children and Youths with Visual Impairments, Including Those with Multiple Disabilities. New York: AFB Press.
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Amendments of 1995 (formerly P.L. 94-142, The Education for All Handicapped Children's Act)
Accessed: April 30, 1999. Web site: http://www.empowermentzone.com/ideaprop.txt
National Center for Education Statistics.
The Condition of Education 1997, Table 46-1: Number of children who were served by federally funded supported programs for students with disabilities, by type of disability: School years ending 1977-95.
Accessed: April 30, 1999. Web site: http://nces.ed.gov/pubs/ce/c9746d01.html
Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services (OSERS).
State Grant Program for Children with Disabilities. IDEA, Part B; CFDA 84.027. FY 1997 Appropriation.
Accessed April 30, 1999. Web site: http://www.ed.gov/offices/OSERS/OSEP/Programs/StGrantB.html
Senge, J.C., and J. Dote-Kwan.
"Responsibilities of Colleges and Universities to Provide Print Access for Students with Visual Impairments," Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, 92, no.5 (1998): 269-275.
U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services.
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Amendments of 1997. (P. L. 105-17).
Accessed April 30, 1999. Web site: http://www.ed.gov/offices/OSERS/IDEA/

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