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Education

Tool Designed For Blind Students Proves Useful For Others, Too

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Trey Simmons

Jonas Wagner

Some school districts are turning to a new resource to help struggling readers: digital textbooks designed for blind students.  A Silicon Valley publishing company is helping develop this format, with a new injection of cash from the federal government.  Special education teachers are embracing the digital books.
 
Rob Turner is blind, but that’s never stopped him from reading. He can read Braille or he can listen to audiobooks. In college, he listened to tapes of textbooks. "I’d have my roommates come in while I’d be listening to it at double speed with the pitch way up like Donald Duck," he recalls, "and they’d be saying 'how can you understand that?'"

Technology has come a long way since then. Nowadays, Turner uses digital books that allow him to speed up a synthesized reading voice without getting that chipmunk effect. To sighted people, the new digital books look similar to what you’d see on a Kindle. Turner says the key element is their operating system, which is called DAISY. It lets him navigate the books by tapping on the screen in response to audio prompts or by using an electronic Braille machine.

"It allows someone who’s reading an electronic book to have anchor points they can quickly move to," Turner explains, "beginnings of chapters, beginnings of sections, specific pages, that sort of thing."

These days, Turner works for a company called Benetech that makes these books. The Silicon Valley nonprofit began its online library a decade ago. Since then, it’s become clear that the books created for blind readers can actually help lots of kids learn to read, such as nine-year-old Jonas Wagner.

Jonas can see just fine, but his teachers say he has a learning disability that makes it hard for him to interpret text. But he has no trouble using a school computer to access a digital version of his fourth-grade reading textbook.

"If you want to change your page, you just have to click the numbers," he says, as he unplugs his headphones so visitors can listen in. "Then you click the “speak” button."  As he does this, the machine begins to read aloud.

Less than one percent of public school students are legally blind. There are far more students like Jonas; some estimates say as many as 10 percent of kids, who can see, but who struggle to decode printed words. 

Tammy Irvine, Jonas's special education teacher, says many of these kids have no trouble understanding concepts once they are able to access them. "All of my students have really high comprehension, and they get it," she says. "They just can’t access the print."

Now, Irvine’s students at Toyon Elementary in San Jose not only have access to books and the ideas within them, they can use this new digital tool to go back and “re-read” their books, worksheets, or tests.

Thanks to a special provision in copyright law, Benetech is not the only nonprofit accredited to create accessible books for the blind and print-disabled. A few similar services use recordings of volunteer readers with real human voices instead of mechanical ones. But using digital voices lets Benetech produce books, worksheets and tests faster than anyone else.

Benetech’s next goal is to convince large textbook publishers to create all of their materials in this accessible digital format.  Benetech vice president Betsy Beauman says it's the right time to do it. "Everybody’s switching over their publishing process," Beauman says, "so now is the opportune moment for us to be there saying, hey, you guys can do it right this time. Don’t worry about what you did on paper, let’s do a digital book the right way."

To make that possible, the U.S. Department of Education just granted Benetech $6.5 million a year for the next five years.

Jonas Wagner's mom is happy to hear that. Both of Amy Wagner’s sons use the digital books to get their work done. "I was afraid they were going to be held back," she says, "or one of them would be held back, and they’re a set of twins and that would be difficult for them. They have a chance."

The federal money will also help Benetech expand its online library. If qualified students or teachers can’t find the book they need, they just have to ask. The company will digitize any book for free.

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