What Are Accessible Educational Materials?

AEM refers to educational materials which are convertible into accessible formats such as Braille, tactile graphics, large print, audio, and digital text. These formats (and others) support student learners who have disabilities. AEM can be read with text-to-speech software, have adjusted font size, and is easily navigated by chapter or section. Assistive devices like refreshable braille displays are commonly used to access AEM.


People with disabilities frequently experience barriers to the use of printed materials, digital materials, and technologies. Examples where barriers might occur include textbooks, digital documents, websites, apps, learning delivery systems, and electronic devices. Accessible educational materials, or AEM, are print- and technology-based educational materials, including printed and electronic textbooks and related core materials that are designed or enhanced in a way that makes them usable across the widest range of learner variability, regardless of format.

You might have also heard about accessible instructional materials (AIM). Whatever they’re called, the basic concept or AEM/AIM is the same: any materials or technologies used in a classroom or other learning environment need to be usable by everyone. If we’re talking about print materials like books or worksheets, sometimes that means those materials must be converted into accessible formats like braille, tactile graphics, large print, audio, digital text, or other. If we’re talking about digital materials like e-books, websites, or apps, those materials and technologies need to be created and presented so that all learners can interact with them. In other words, materials and technologies used in any learning environment need to be accessible.

Accessibility is a moving target to the extent that each individual learner has reasons for needing AEM and accessible technologies. For example, accessible materials and accessible technologies may mean one thing to a person who has a visual impairment and a very different thing to a person who has a hearing impairment. That’s why there are accessibility guidelines and regulations to let content creators, publishers, schools, organizations, and institutions know what’s expected. Under IDEA the State Education Agency and Local Education Agency have the responsibility to provide accessible formats of print educational materials to blind and other print disabled persons in a timely manner. Local Education Agencies (LEAs) must take all reasonable steps to provide print educational materials in accessible formats to children with disabilities at the same time as other children receive those materials.

Created by IDEA 2004, the National Instructional Materials Access Center (NIMAC) is a federally funded, online file repository of educational source files. The recent enactment of the Marrakesh Treaty has modified who is eligible to access NIMAC derived materials and made several other changes detailed below.

The changes are important because they affect eligibility requirements for the many students who rely on accessible materials derived from the NIMAC. The updated list of “eligible person” now includes those with IEPs who, regardless of any other disability, are

a. blind
b. have a visual impairment or perceptual or reading disability that cannot be improved to give visual function substantially equivalent to that of a person who has no such impairment or disability and so is unable to read printed works to substantially the same degree as a person without an impairment or disability
c. is otherwise unable, through physical disability, to hold or manipulate a book or to focus or move the eyes to the extent that would be normally acceptable for reading.

The list of professionals who can certify a student as eligible has also changed. Most notable is the change that a medical doctor is no longer required to certify individuals with reading disabilities. The new certifying professionals are

d. Doctor of Medicine, doctor of osteopathy, ophthalmologist, optometrist, psychologist, registered nurse, therapist, and professional staff of hospitals, institutions, and public or welfare agencies (such as an educator, a social worker, case worker, counselor, rehabilitation teacher, certified reading specialist, school psychologist, superintendent, or librarian).

Finally, accessible formats are no longer limited to only braille, large print, audio, and digital text. For example, tactile graphics could now be considered an accessible format.

The best way to learn more about these changes is to review the AEM center treaty website and their Module 5 resources. The AEM Navigator


Visit the National Center on AEM to explore quick start guides for Parents/Families, K-12 Educators and for State/Local Education Agencies. Much of the material on this website was adapted from the National Center on AEM.

When learners have accessible materials and technologies in a timely manner, they are more likely to be independent, to participate, and to make progress in the curriculum. Examples of AEM include:

Printed textbooks and educational materials
Traditional materials are defined as textbooks and related printed core materials that are written and published primarily for use in elementary school and secondary school instruction and are required by a state education agency or local education agency for use by students in a classroom. These materials may not effectively provide access to the curriculum for many learners. In addition to students with identified disabilities, print can be a barrier for general education students, such as those whose decoding abilities are considerably below grade level. Students with visual impairments may not be able to see the material; students with physical disabilities may not be able to hold a book or turn its pages; students with learning disabilities, as well as general education students with limited decoding abilities, may have difficulty making meaning from printed text. These and other barriers presented by printed materials may be addressed by providing the identical information in one or more accessible formats such as audio, large-print, braille, or electronic text.

Digital materials and technologies
Materials already in a digital form may present barriers to learners with a wide range of disabilities. Consider the functional abilities required to interact with media-rich content delivered by devices and software programs, such as computers, tablets, learning management systems, and video players. Students with low vision may not be able to see the text, graphics, menus, navigational tools, or video. Physical disabilities may interfere with students’ abilities to use standard input and navigational methods, such as the keyboard, mouse or trackpad on computers or touchscreens on tablets. Students with hearing loss may not benefit from audio-only output, including alerts, cues, narration, or video. And students with learning disabilities and communication needs may need options for reading formats, the rate at which audio is played, or the appearance and features of a program.

Fortunately, access barriers may be prevented when digital materials and technologies are designed from the start to be accessible. In some cases, access features are built into the design of products and media, giving all learners the option to use them. Examples include:

• Text that can be read aloud by text-to-speech or recorded human speech for learners who may have low vision, reading disabilities, or fatigue easily
• Alt text added to graphics on web pages and digital documents to describe visuals for learners who may be blind
• Closed captions on video for learners who may be deaf or hard of hearing
• Audio descriptions on video for learners who may not be able to see onscreen actions due to low vision or blindness
• Voice control that supports opening and closing programs, dictating documents, or navigating the web by learners who may not be able to use a keyboard or mouse due to a physical disability

Assistive technologies are used by many learners to access AEM. For instance, refreshable braille displays may be used by learners with low vision, or text-to-speech software may be used by learners with reading disabilities. SESTA can provide assistive technology consultation for individual students to help your team brainstorm possible tools to match student needs. SESTA can also lend your team equipment for short term trials.


Does Your Student Need AEM?

If a student with a disability on an IEP is able to understand the content presented in textbooks and other related core educational materials that are used by other students across the curriculum, but is unable to read or use them, the student will need another way to get the information contained in the print materials. In this case, the student may need specialized formats of the curricular materials. There are several questions that, when explored, could indicate that the student might need AEM. For example:

  • Is the student able to understand text when it is read aloud but has trouble reading on their own?
  • Does the student have a visual disability that makes it difficult to see text in print or on a screen?
  • Does the student have a physical disability that makes it difficult to hold a book, turn pages, or use a keyboard?

If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” AEM might be able to help.

If the student is making adequate progress and spending reasonable amounts of time on tasks that require obtaining information from print using standard print-based educational materials, then the team can determine that there is no need for specialized formats. Data and information can be collected through:

• Informal observations by teachers and parents
• Interviews with students, parents and teachers
• Classroom-based assessments
• Curriculum-based assessments
• Academic progress
• State-wide and district-wide assessment results

The modules provided by CAST as well as their AEM Navigator are great tools that facilitate the process of decision-making around accessible formats of educational materials for individual students. They assist teams in making informed, accurate decision.

Idaho SESTA can provide assistive technology focused consultations and equipment lending to assist your team in their data gathering and decision making process.

Acquiring AEM

After establishing that a student needs AEM and selecting which formats are needed for what materials, the decision-making team determines how and where to acquire the materials. There are a variety of sources for acquiring AEM; however, not all students are eligible to receive materials from each of the different sources. Keep in mind that many students may need more than one accessible format and may need materials from more than one source.

When the team has identified the important factors about the student, the environments where the student needs access to print, the tasks the student is expected to accomplish, and the specific print materials in the curriculum, team members can then match the identified student needs to the features of the various technology tools that might be used to deliver the accessible format.

The provision of accessible educational materials via appropriate technology enables students to develop literacy skills, access information, communicate independently and efficiently, and participate in all educational activities.

There are five basic sources which include the following:
1. AMPs: Accessible media producers (AMPs) create and provide student-ready accessible formats to two groups of students. Materials produced by AMPs are available to students or others who meet copyright criteria. In Idaho Bookshare, LearningAlly and the IESDB are our AMPs.

2. The NIMAC: The National Instructional Materials Access Center (NIMAC) is the national repository for NIMAS source files provided by publishers. Only students who are dually qualified under IDEA and copyright law are eligible to receive accessible formats created from NIMAS-conformant files from the NIMAC. Schools/students don’t interact with the NIMAC directly. Our AMPs (above) access the NIMAC on your behalf.

3. Commercial Sources: Some educational materials can be purchased in accessible formats from publishers and other sources (e.g., Materials acquired via purchase from a commercial source can be used by any student.

4. Free Sources: Some accessible materials are available free-of-charge from various sources, frequently via the Internet. These materials are typically copyright-free or open source. Materials acquired from free sources can be used by any student. Except for open-source materials, commercially prepared textbooks are not available in this category.

5. "Locally Created": Some educational materials are not available in accessible formats from any other source and others are not published (e.g., teacher-developed materials). Accessible versions of these materials must be locally created by scanning or other means. When accessible versions of copyrighted materials are created locally, compliance with and respect for copyright law is required. These materials are created on a student-by-student basis for a specific student only. Publisher permission should be requested. To explore this option please contact the state coordinators listed at the bottom of this webpage.

Select from the following options to determine the sources that can be used to acquire materials for the student.

• Student meets copyright criteria for accessible formats and is served in special education under IDEA. This student is eligible for accessible formats acquired from all five sources: NIMAC, AMPs (Bookshare, LearningAlly and the IESDB), commercial sources, free sources, and, under some circumstances, "locally created."

• Student meets copyright criteria for accessible formats but is not served under IDEA. This student is eligible for accessible formats acquired from AMPs (Bookshare, LearningAlly and the IESDB), commercial sources, free sources, and, under some circumstances, "locally created."

• Student does not meet copyright criteria for accessible formats. This student is eligible for accessible formats acquired from commercial sources, free sources, and, under some circumstances, "locally created."


A specialized format of a print-based material includes exactly the same information as the printed material. The specialized format does not change the content, only the way in which the content is presented to the student. The specialized format neither adds nor changes any information. An alternative material may address the same goals, but the content of the material is modified or changed in some way – usually made less complex – so that it can be understood by the student.

The use of accessible educational materials and accessible technologies strengthens opportunities for learners to experience independence, participation and progress. Specialized formats of printed materials may mean the difference between learning barriers and learning opportunities. Choosing digital materials and technologies that are designed from the start to be accessible to diverse users is integral to Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn. From a UDL perspective, AEM and accessible technologies may be customized and adjusted to meet individual needs, making them assets for all learners. To put this perspective into action, the availability and use of AEM and accessible technologies need to be increased. Based on these considerations, three distinct reasons for providing AEM emerge:

• To ensure equitable access for students with disabilities to the same materials and technologies used by all learners
• To provide all learners with options for perceiving information
• To drive improvement in the quality and availability of AEM and accessible technologies

Training and technical assistance can be provided for your team. For assistance, please fill out this Help Desk form to be connected to a SESTA coordinator.

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For assistance, please fill out a Help Desk Request form to be connected to a Statewide SESTA Coordinator.

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