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What is NIMAS?

Ron Stewart, Director
Technology Access Program Information Services
Oregon State University

NIMAS stands for National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard, a file format for the development of digital textbooks and instructional materials for students with visual and print disabilities. NIMAS is based on XML (a metadata-based programming environment), which provides for the greatest degree of content access and flexibility in providing alternative format materials. The same properly structured NIMAS file can be used to provide audio books, electronic books and Braille books. The NIMAS standard provides a system for the production and electronic distribution of digital versions of textbooks and other instructional materials that can be readily converted to a variety of accessible formats.

NIMAS is the language used by OSEP (Federal Office of Special Education Programs) for the version of the Daisy Talking Book Standard (DBT3) that is found in the language of IDEA2004. The DBT standard is an internationally accepted and supported standard for the creation of digital book files. It is the only current standard that provides for the necessary structure and formatting for creating fully functional electronic-based books in a non-proprietary format. IDEA2004 provides for the creation of a National Instructional Materials Accessibility Center (NIMAC), a national repository for NIMAS-based electronic textbooks for K-12 education. IDEA2004 established a requirement that all textbooks and supplemental curricular materials be provided as NIMAS files by mid-December 2006. (See http://nimas.cast.org.) The American Printing House for the Blind is the coordinating agency for this effort and the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) is the agency that is providing the technical and developmental support to bring these requirements to fruition.

Why is the Current System Not Working?

The vast majority of current files provided by publishers are almost unusable and rarely contain even the most basic of structural organization such as paragraph breaks, page breaks and page numbers. The current system of file provision typically supplies RTF, DOC, PDF, and ASCII files, which in reality contain no imbedded structural content, nor do they provide access to the non-literary elements of the instructional materials. What this current situation results in is the office responsible for providing the student accommodations must also have a system to re-edit the provided files and insert all the necessary structure, and they must also provide for a mechanism for turning charts, graphs and images into a usable format for the student. The time and resources this process requires typically results in the student being considerably behind their peers, as well as not having equivalent access to the entire breadth of instructional materials.

Why NIMAS?

NIMAS is currently the only nationally accepted standard (ANSI/NISO) for the creation of accessible digital textbooks. It is imperative that states adopt national standards whenever possible to insure that all involved parties are operating from a common set of expectations and not from 50 differing sets of standards and obligations imposed by individual state statute. The emergence of these differing standards has been a common complaint from the publishing industry, and yet the publishers are also fighting the adoption of NIMAS, a uniform file format standard. The goal of the NIMAS effort is to create a uniform set of standards not unlike those found in accessible construction, occupational safety and telecommunications.

NIMAS has been adopted as a standard by the Federal Department of Education, and is endorsed by a cross spectrum of governmental agencies, advocacy groups and the publishing industry. The National Federation for the Blind and other blindness-related organizations are advocating for the inclusion of NIMAS in the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act as a requirement for publishers.

NIMAS results in alternative format reading materials that contain all of the necessary structural elements for effective use by students such as sidebars, page numbers, page breaks and annotations. One of the most confounding problems with the current divergence in file formats is that each unique format provides for differing methods of use and conversion. None of the formats, with the exception of HTML using the "Accessibility Standards", provides for the necessary structural conventions for standardized accessibility. Accessible HTML-based files require the same amount or more labor to produce as is required to produce NIMAS files, but NIMAS structure could be readily included as a part of the electronic production processes of the publishing industry.

  • NIMAS overcomes the inherent problems for both users and educational agencies that are created from receiving files in multiple and conflicting formats.
  • NIMAS results in consistent digital files that are complete, are in the correct and coherent order, and ensure that the entirety of the hard copy version is available in the digital file.
  • NIMAS is a subset of the much larger internationally adopted DAISY/NISO format and as such is an open source format supported by all of the current products designed for the production and consumption of accessible curricular materials.
  • NIMAS provides for a non-proprietary solution that contains all the essential elements for effective use of the digital book file by the end user.
  • NIMAS is also supported by all of the manufacturers of talking book hardware and software.
  • NIMAS was specifically developed to replace the current piecemeal approach to the provision of electronic textbook files and facilitate overcoming the current shortcomings in file usability and quality.