The use of e-text as a primary alternate format in today's classrooms has expanded exponentially in recent years. With the exception of Braille, e-text formats such as Word, RTF, ASCII, and HTML can provide each of the accommodations that are singly offered by audio-only and large print. E-text can be highlighted (selected with a mouse or a key combination) and read aloud by synthetic speech on almost any computer. While the tonal quality of computer-generated speech is not as good as recorded human voice, it is far more flexible, and continuing research in this area has resulted in increasingly high-quality pronunciation. E-text can be instantly increased in size, preferential color schemes can be applied, and letters, words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and sections can be sequentially highlighted as text is read aloud.
In the past ten years, the cost of desktop computer technology has steadily decreased while its capabilities have steadily increased. Digital scanning equipment and software, required to transform print into digital text, years ago cost thousands; today it costs hundreds. Once a rarity, this technology is not uncommon in schools, and it provides educators will the ability to transform inaccessible print works themselves into accessible digital formats. Faced with the mandates of federal special education and civil rights laws, special educators have turned to this solution.
While this approach to providing accessible versions of print curriculum materials is pragmatic and effective, it also diverts available educational resources to product retro-fitting and file format production—neither of which is an efficient use of instructional resources. These local solutions also result in materials of varying quality and usability, and often end up meeting the needs of an individual student, with no potential of scalability. Clearly, the acknowledged efficiencies offered by digital tools and formats need to be combined with a national agenda in order to eliminate redundancies and allow educators to return to the task of instruction.
For over one hundred years, the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) has created books in alternate accessible formats, including Braille, supported by an annual federal appropriation. In the early 1900's, Congress began requiring that copies of embossed books be provided to the Library of Congress; and in the early 1930s, concurrent with the establishment of a uniform system of Braille, Congress established the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) at the Library of Congress. One of the purposes of establishing the NLS was to provide federal coordination of the process of Braille production and distribution. In addition to these large national Braille production and distribution centers, additional regional and state Braille distribution systems have evolved in an effort to keep Braille editions current and readily available. A number of private Braille production companies have also been established to augment government-supported efforts.
For the majority of the past century, the process of creating Braille has been one of retro-fitting existing print works into embossed versions. Of necessity, this has involved obtaining, storing, and transcribing the print versions, re-creating the work in an embossed format, validating and proofing the embossed version, and mailing these versions to Braille readers who have requested them. In addition to the complexity of and the time required to complete this process, the ratio of embossed Braille pages to pages of print is approximately 6:1; a 500-page print book would require nearly 3,000 pages of embossed Braille.
During the past three decades, refreshable Braille displays (RBDs) have evolved to create temporary print-to-Braille transformations. RBDs receive digital information—Braille-formatted ASCII text, for example—and transform it into Braille characters which are then displayed on a flexible membrane via a series of movable pins. RBDs offer considerable improvements over embossed Braille in their portability and ability to create "Braille on the fly," but their high cost limits their widespread use.
Regardless of limitations, RBDs highlight the incredible potential of digital media to revolutionize the Braille creation process. As more curriculum publishers adopt a digital workflow creating digital source files at the beginning of the production process rather than at its end, the potential of creating Braille-ready digital versions without having to retro-fit existing print works becomes technologically feasible. This possibility, with its attendant elimination of the inefficiencies and inaccuracies associated with the creation of Braille as an afterthought in the book production process, provides the foundation for the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard (NIMAS).
Many of the libraries and production houses that produce or distribute Braille and Talking Books also produce large print books. The National Library Service maintains a listing of large print production and distribution facilities in the United States. The use of large print materials, while fairly common among older adults with vision loss, is less common in schools. The American Printing House for the Blind does produce large print textbooks, and a number of commercial publishers routinely produce large print versions for sale, although the use of these materials in the nation's classrooms is limited.