Friday, June 27, 2008

Mr. Jim Goes to Washington (Again)

As part of the large national award we received from the Department of Education, we are spending a lot more time in Washington. I talk to lots of folks: congressional staff, members of Congress, folks at the Department of Education, the publishers, disability activists and so on. I hope to provide a little flavor of what this is like, since as an engineer and not-very-political-guy, this is new to me. But, like many social entrepreneurs, I'm beginning to figure out that being absent from the halls of policy is not serving our mission.

I had the chance to meet with Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa last month, and tell him about for ten minutes. I was surprised to find he was aware of the controversy around the big award and asked sharp questions about how we were dealing with challenges around delivering on this. He is a huge figure in disability policy, and it was an honor to get to talk to him about what we're doing.

The biggest issue I'm still working on is one I mentioned two years ago: getting access to the textbooks in the National Instructional Materials Access Center (NIMAC). There are more than 8,000 textbooks and other instructional materials in the repository, but very few of these have reached students. We're working to make it easier to get these books to students, especially since our goal is to see every student with a print disability in the United States have the same textbooks and other books their non-disabled peers have, at the same time and in high quality.

Picture of eleven people sitting and standing at a table

The first step was to get the major players in the accessible media field together and agree. The Officer of Special Education Programs (OSEP) at the Dept. of Ed. did this a couple of months ago. This worked well, because we were able to hammer out a pretty reasonable consensus among the different programs, including RFB&D, and the American Printing House for the Blind, the operators of the NIMAC repository. We had support for this consensus as well from CAST, the AIM Consortium and the Pacific CIMAP, three other key players that mainly represented the interests of state agencies who want help from RFB&D and in delivering on their commitment to accessible textbooks.

Next, we were advocating to the Department of Education that they formally ok this. This is our current objective. It takes time to get a formal policy declaration from any government agency, and we want an expedited decision so that we can be delivering these textbooks to students in September at the start of the new school year.

Jim Fruchterman and Congressman Petri
Last week I spent a couple of days on Capitol Hill, meeting with staffers and two Members of Congress. Representative Petri from Wisconsin played a key role in getting the NIMAC established, and I was glad to get the opportunity to share what we were doing to have it make a bigger impact.

We were also able to update key staff about our progress over with Bookshare for Education (we've now increased the numbers of students signed up by more than ten-fold since nine months ago, to over 20,000) as well as our challenge around NIMAC access. Congressional staff really want to dig into the policy issues, and the common thread from all of them is the key outcomes: are kids getting books? I felt like we had a very receptive audience, and feel like our commitment to the mission of serving students leads to the hearing we receive. Also, it helps to have the help of a lobbying firm like ours, which focuses solely on representing the social sector.
Jackie Speier and Jim Fruchterman
I had met Jackie Speier, the new Congresswoman from the San Francisco peninsula, at a library event shortly before she was elected to fill the vacancy created by the passing of Tom Lantos. She had heard me speak and told me to come by if she got elected. It was great to see her: she's a dynamo and well known and respected in our community.

My impression is that nobody has a significant objection to making it easier for students with bona fide disabilities to get access to the books they need through Bookshare and Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic. Our access to the NIMAC is still quite limited, but we're optimistic that this will be improved in the future. But, watch this space for updates: our current limited access is the number one obstacle to delivering fully on our dream of equal access to textbooks for print disabled students.

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