Tackling textbook troubles
A Janesville lawmaker predicts smooth sailing for pending legislation that would improve access to written materials for Wisconsin college students with disabilities.
Rep. Joe Knilans, R-Janesville, and Sen. Bob Wirch, D-Kenosha, have introduced Assembly Bill 322, which would require publishers to make all written materials available in a digital format that can be converted to alternative mediums such as Braille, large print or audio to meet the specific needs of individual students.
Current law makes the materials available to students until age 18.
Knilans' bill—the Instructional Materials Accessibility Act—would extend it to cover the UW System and the Wisconsin Technical College System.
Knilans said some students have to wait three or four weeks to get textbooks in a format they can use. In some cases, he said, the cost is exorbitant.
"I believe that there was one student at UW-Green Bay who was faced with a $7,000 or $8,000 bill for a math textbook," Knilans said. "He had to drop out."
The bill would force publishers to make the material available within a reasonable time or allow the school to convert it at its own expense, he said.
"We've got military veterans coming back with eye injuries who can't serve anymore and were putting up roadblocks to their career change," Knilans said, adding he can sympathize with the challenges faced by nontraditional students because he was one himself.
Knilans said he is mindful that his district includes the state's only school for the blind and visually impaired.
"I want to make certain that the students at this school have the tools they will need to continue their education and enrich their opportunities for post-graduate employment," he said.
The bill has been introduced before but has previously met with resistance from publishers. Substitute language, however, is in the works that will make the legislation acceptable to all parties, Knilans said.
"We've had several meetings with the publishers, and they are onboard and want to use it as a template that they can use across the country," he said.
Gary Goyke, legislative director for the Wisconsin Council of the Blind and Visually Impaired, said the law, if passed, would be a major improvement for students.
"We have worked in a bipartisan and inclusive fashion with the publishers, the advocates, the University of Wisconsin system and the vocational system," he said. "I think we have a proposal that we can proudly stand up and say this puts Wisconsin on the map stating loudly that no student will be denied access to our educational systems promise of a better opportunity."
The bill has been assigned to the Assembly's Colleges and Universities Committee, where it will be scheduled for a public hearing.