NIMAS: Opportunities With XML-Based Accessibility Specifications for Publishers

Since the early nineteenth century invention of braille, the concept of making written content available to the blind or visually impaired has been a noble aspiration of civilized society. Making that concept a practical reality is another matter. Even as new, more automated, technologies arise, the challenges of accessibility remain formidable. For educational publishers, accessibility is particularly important. In the United States, schools receiving federal funding support are required to provide accessible content to any student or parent who requests it.

National Center for Accessible Educational Materials (AEM)

According to the National Center for Accessible Educational Materials (AEM), there are four major specialized output formats for adapting printed instructional material to the diverse needs of the visually impaired:

  1. braille
  2. large print
  3. audio
  4. digital text

While the first three are self-explanatory, "digital text" is a general category, encompassing any text and image descriptions that can be rendered by specialized or general-purpose digital devices. Each of these four output categories follow predictable rules and logic, there is a definable way to use a structured “master file” approach—creating the content once, and outputting as needed to as many formats as the market requires.

Let's Talk About Text

Of course when we talk about text, we must talk about structure. And when we talk about structure, we must talk about XML. In the context of accessibility, NIMAS is the XML-based specification that is the gateway (and the federal mandate) for K-12 and higher education content (i.e., textbooks and ancillaries). In a significant step forward for students with disabilities, the U.S. Congress adopted NIMAS as part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004, a reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

While some may view NIMAS as a costly regulatory barrier that must be overcome simply to maintain existing business, it is also possible to view NIMAS as providing an opportunity to assume a leadership position while retooling internal workflows to leverage the benefits of XML. Done right, these benefits include improved quality, enhanced flexibility, and increased speed to market.

Good vs Valid XML

Cenveo’s Senior Vice President of Content Solutions, Kevin Burns, reiterated the importance of creating “great” NIMAS compliant files instead of “good enough” files. “There is a distinction between a valid NIMAS compliant file and a great one,” he said. “You can have a NIMAS compliant file that is valid but doesn’t really achieve the spirit or the goal of what the content is supposed to be. What happens too often is that budgets demand, or conversion teams choose to do whatever is easiest (i.e., cheapest) instead of doing the right thing to create a good NIMAS compliant file.”

You can have a NIMAS compliant file that is valid but doesn’t really achieve the spirit or the goal of what the content is supposed to be. What happens too often is that budgets demand, or conversion teams choose to do whatever is easiest (i.e., cheapest) instead of doing the right thing to create a good NIMAS compliant file.

A common example is the long description for images—a NIMAS requirement for any visual element in a book. If the published caption or call-outs in the main text (words meant to enhance a sighted person’s understanding of an image) is simply copied and pasted into the long description field, it isn’t truly meaningful for someone visually impaired. Although this certainly saves on costs, and the resulting file will be NIMAS compliant because there is something in that field, but in some cases words could have little or no utility to someone who cannot see the image clearly, or at all.

Automation + Human Intervention = Quality

Yogesh Jedhe, Business Manager at Cenveo Publisher Services, outlines the basic process of creating NIMAS file sets---“The input is often a combination of Word files, hard copy, PDFs, application files, or XML—depending on the publisher.  We also receive existing metadata for the publication. Our teams leverage robust transformation technology tools to extract data from the source files, apply and edit XML as needed, and process and tag images. Finally, a team of content analysts at Cenveo spend time to make sure that the elements that require human judgment, like image descriptions, are created in a way that aligns with the true intent of the NIMAS standard. The team then uses tools to validate the resulting XML against the NIMAS schema, as well as against a series of business rules, which are designed to check the file beyond simple compliance with the NIMAS standard."

The team also works with subject matter experts to make sure that image description fields are populated with alternate text that truly help a visually impaired student. Other elements, such as math equations in MathML, are captured in such a way that they accurately and effectively convey information to the visually impaired.

NIMAS compliant files created by Jedhe’s group are rigorously tested and refined using a Cenveo-developed tool. However, the object is not simply to create technically valid files, but to ensure that the resulting content will communicate information to a visually impaired student as effectively as its core counterpart does to other students.


NIMAS White Paper

Read more by downloading our white paper on this topic. By the way, we made it accessible!


Mike Groth

Michael Groth is Director of Marketing at Cenveo Publisher Services, where he oversees all aspects of marketing strategy and implementation across digital, social, conference, advertising and PR channels. Mike has spent over 20 years in marketing for scholarly publishing, previously at Emerald, Ingenta, Publishers Communication Group, the New England Journal of Medicine and Wolters Kluwer. He has made the rounds at information industry events, organized conference sessions, presented at SSP, ALA, ER&L and Charleston, and blogged on topics ranging from market trends, library budgets and research impact, to emerging markets and online communities.. Twitter Handle: @mikegroth72