For Dyslexic and Visually Impaired Students, a Free High-Tech Solution

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By Lillian Mongeau

Elizabeth is a college freshman who has severe dyslexia that makes it impossible for her to decipher printed materials. Nearly every night for 12 years of school, Elizabeth’s mother would sit down and read her daughter's school work to her because that's the only choice they had.

But a few months before starting college, Elizabeth discovered an online library called Bookshare.org, run by a small non-profit called Benetech.

“My life changed as I entered the world of accessible literature,” Elizabeth wrote on Bookshare's blog.

For Elizabeth and the millions of students who are "print disabled" -- meaning they have trouble reading because of dyslexia or vision impairment -- many textbooks are not available in an audio format or in any other format that's easily accessible. Bookshare converts texts into accessible digital formats--mostly audio and digital braille--for those who can't decipher print.

It’s not that Benetech invented accessible literature. The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), which is part of the Library of Congress, has 300,000 titles and close to 1 million registered readers. The library provides audio books, Braille books and digital files that communicate with electronic Braille notetakers. However, many NLS books must be requested by mail and wait lists for popular texts can be long. In the last few years, the NLS has started offering some texts for download.

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A few other services, like the nonprofit Learning Ally, which has been around since 1948, also offer accessible books for the dyslexic and visually impaired. Volunteers of Learning Ally volunteers read books out loud and those recordings are uploaded to an online library in an accessible format that works much like Bookshare. What Bookshare does differently is focus on the technology element. Instead of a book read by a volunteer, Bookshare offers a book that will be read by a computer. To this end Bookshare focus on developing software in-house.**

Currently Bookshare, which was founded in 2001, offers more than 150,000 titles, which can be downloaded in a file format that works with several different digital solutions. Membership is free for all students, including those in adult education, and $50 per year for everyone else, not including a $25 one-time set up fee. For textbooks that aren't yet available on Bookshare, users can send in a request for those titles, which then take anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months to convert.

“We want books in a format everyone can use,” said Betsy Beaumon, vice president of Benetech.

Benetech’s user-friendly software and its efforts to work with publishers to create accessible digital texts on the front-end have earned the small company a major grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Last month, the Department of Education awarded Benetech $6.5 million a year through 2017 to continue and expand its work to make textbooks, textbook images and software innovations for users more widespread.

Bookshare books aren't just PDFs of print pages. Each page is scanned and processed through an optical character recognition program that translates the image file into a text file. That file is proofread to eliminate typos and ensure that things like odd page layouts haven’t damaged readability. Finally, the file is formatted so that it can be “read” in a digital voice by screen reading software -- a computer program that reads what's on the screen -- or fed to a Braille notetaker.

Benetech engineers have also produced an iPhone, iPad and Android app that makes these files user-friendly in a variety of ways. For example, it's easy to skip to a chapter heading or even a specific page just as a sighted reader could with a paper textbook by using a combination of aural clues and tapping of the touch-screen.

One of two specially created voices can be chosen to read the text. The voices can be sped up or slowed down without losing their pleasant tone. For Rob Turner, the head of customer service at Benetech, this means no more “chipmunk voices.” Turner is blind and in order to read texts as fast as sighted readers when he was in college, Turner would speed up the tape deck playback. With years of practice, he can listen to and take in aural information this way much faster than most people.

Since many legally blind people have some amount of vision and because dyslexic readers can see, the software also has a visual element. The size and color of the text can be changed. The background color can also be changed—this has been shown to help some dyslexic readers. A highlighter can be set to follow each word of the text as it’s read out loud.

Math equations have traditionally been a big stumbling block for this demographic of readers. The software that “reads” text from the screen cannot read image files and math equations are often in image files. Benetech has created a program that allows a user to type a math equation into a box that will translate the equation into code that works with its software or that can be fed into a Braille notetaker.

Rick Roderick, who has been blind since birth, has made a career out of teaching other blind people to use computers and Braille notetakers. As such, he’s stayed on the cutting edge of technology to help the blind. Bookshare, he said, is the best innovation yet.

“Bookshare has totally improved my quality of life,” he said.

The biggest change has been the speed at which he can access books, Roderick said.

“My frustration was I would hear about a book on Morning Edition or Fresh Air and I remember thinking, ‘I wish I could read that,’ knowing it might be available in a year and a half,” he said. “Bookshare changed all that.”

Now, Roderick said he can get new books within days or weeks of their publication date. As soon as it's uploaded to Bookshare, he can access it. He can also get same-day news from print publications like The New York Times and a list of other big and small periodicals.

“I remember asking one of my teachers in first grade, ‘Will there ever be a Braille newspaper?’” Roderick said. “She said, ‘No, that would be impossible.’ That is now possible.”

Benetech leaders hope their recently awarded grant will continue to make even more content readily available to those who cannot decipher print. They have already begun conversations with publishers about how eBooks can be formatted for accessibility from the beginning of the printing process so the long process of scanning and changing file types can be eliminated.

Beaumon said she is especially excited about the work they’ve begun with a few textbook publishers in advance of the switch to Common Core standards. If digital files are created as “accessible literature” in the first place, Beaumon said there would be more high-quality content available more quickly.

“Now is the opportune moment,” she said.

Elizabeth is about to start her sophomore year of college. She’s developed the habit of figuring out exactly what books she’ll need for her upcoming semester and making sure they're available on Bookshare months in advance. If they’re not, she buys two copies of the book, one for herself and one to send to Benetech for scanning. That way, everyone will have access to the information.

“I consider it a privilege to have the opportunity to read every word," she wrote on the Bookshare blog.

** [CLARIFICATION August 15, 2012: An earlier version of this article mischaracterized Learning Ally, which also specializes in accessible textbooks for the dyslexic, visually impaired, and physically handicapped. MindShift regrets the error.]

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