Content Accessibility 101: NIMAS Basics

Since the early 19th century invention of braille, the concept of making written content available to the blind or visually impaired has been a noble aspiration of a civilized society. Making that concept a practical reality is another matter. Even as new, more automated technologies arise, the challenges of accessibility remain formidable.

Overview of documents and content required for the NIMAS fileset.

The rise of digital media has made the problem more acute since, like print, digital is an intensely visual medium. In his 2012 book Accessible EPUB3 (O’Reilly/Tools of Change), author Matt Garrish cites the phrase “digital famine,” meaning that only about 5% of books produced in a year are ever made available in an accessible format. “Although there are signs that this rate is beginning to tick upward with more ebooks being produced, the overall percentage of books that become available in accessible form remains abysmally small.”

For K-12 and higher education, the accessibility gap has dire consequences.  However, accessibility can mean significantly different approaches. According to a recent report from the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), not all those 21 and younger who are legally blind use the same reading medium. Only 9% use braille, while 29% are visual readers and 8% are auditory readers; alarmingly, 35% are non-readers. In other words, compensating for visual impairment can take many forms: tactile, auditory, and assisted or enhanced visual techniques for those with partial sight.

One source; many outcomes

Thankfully, these differences all point to a data-centric approach which can, in theory, resolve the accessibility issue for publishers. Words and images, particularly images with rich, descriptive metadata, are almost all inherently digital today. By authoring or converting this digital source data to a structured, machine-readable format, publishers can output to multiple formats as a matter of economic feasibility and even profitability—not just because accessibility is a compliance mandate.

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. The first is braille, an alphabet of dot patterns that can be embossed on paper or rendered via a display device. Large print is self-explanatory—and theoretically most adaptable to ebooks and other digital display media. Audio—particularly the computerized text-to-speech variety—is third, followed by “digital text,” a general category encompassing any text and image descriptions that can be rendered by specialized or even general-purpose digital devices.

Since each of these four output choices 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, with a minimum of manual intervention.


By authoring or converting this digital source data to a structured, machine-readable format, publishers can output to multiple formats as a matter of economic feasibility and even profitability—not just because accessibility is a compliance mandate.

AEM is the developer of the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard or NIMAS (pronounced “nai-mass”), an XML-based specification for organizing and structuring textbook and other educational content. NIMAS is in turn a subset of an older XML standard known as Digital Accessible Information SYstem, or DAISY, used to create Digital Talking Books or DTBs. Books stored in NIMAS XML can be easily rendered in any of the four basic output formats, and made available to schools or programs for visually impaired.

In the U.S., schools receiving federal funding support are required to provide materials in NIMAS format, and to facilitate the resulting output formats for their students. Increasingly, publishers must meet that requirement, and are looking for ways not only to comply with the federal mandate but also to increase the output flexibility of their overall operations.

We can help

Interested in learning how Cenveo Publisher Services can help your publishing organization manage content conversion to NIMAS and generate NIMAS filesets for delivery to the National Instructional Materials Access Center? Just click the button below and let us show you how we make it easy to support all your readers.


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