Braille Monitor                                                    March 2008

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Leveling the Playing Field for Students with Disabilities

by Jim Fruchterman

From the Editor: The following article first appeared in the Fall 2007 Blind Citizen, a publication of the National Federation of the Blind of California. Jim Fruchterman is president and CEO of Benetech Initiatives, located in Palo Alto, California. His company is the parent of Bookshare, a service widely used by Federationists. In this article he describes Bookshare’s services and his plans for the continuing development of the Bookshare program.

Jim FruchtermanIn a classroom somewhere in California today, a blind student is telling a teacher that he or she cannot fulfill a reading assignment already completed by sighted classmates. This is not because students are failing to apply themselves. It is because a book assigned to the class is not available in a format that the student can read, or the assistive technology needed to read that book is too expensive. Despite the best efforts of the teacher, the class moves forward, and the disabled student falls behind.

This struggle to provide accessible books to disabled students and ensure that they receive a first-rate education is taking place in schools throughout the U.S. Organizations that serve the disabled estimate that two million students in the United States require alternative formats for print materials. While policy makers have expanded their efforts to provide high-quality education for disabled students, there is still a profound lack of accessible educational materials, including textbooks. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and the reforms mandated in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA) required educators to accommodate disabled students with accessible materials and assistive technologies. Despite mandated standardized file formats and central repositories for accessible materials, publishers have been slow to provide accessible files. System inefficiencies, continued laborious duplication of effort, and the high cost of assistive technologies have all made it difficult for educators to provide books for disabled students.

We feel a real urgency to help get books into the hands of disabled students and their teachers here in the U.S. and around the world. It is estimated that only five percent of printed materials worldwide are produced in formats that are accessible to those who cannot read a traditional book. If students with print disabilities cannot access books at the same time as their peers in the same classroom, how can they have confidence in their ability to succeed fully in school and in the workplace?

Accessible content and assistive technology are also needed to support educational services beyond elementary and secondary schools. The U.S. Department of Education estimated in 2005 that over the past fifteen years the number of students with disabilities who are continuing their education through postsecondary schools has doubled. Disabled students in medical training, law school, and other professional degree programs need up-to-date textbooks to compete with their sighted classmates.

As an engineer I have always believed that technology could be used efficiently to provide accessible books to disabled students. Benetech, the nonprofit technology company that I founded, set out to prove this could be done. In 2002 Benetech launched the Bookshare.org service that is now the largest online digital library of accessible books in the United States. Bookshare.org began as a subscription-based library built by its users, including people who are blind or have low vision, dyslexia, or a mobility impairment that prevents them from reading a traditional book.

There is a special provision in U.S. copyright law that explicitly gives qualified nonprofit organizations such as Benetech the right to distribute copyrighted materials in a specialized format for use by print-disabled people, without requiring permission. To meet the requirements of copyright law and agreements with publishers and authors, Bookshare.org users must provide proof of a print disability such as blindness, low vision, a reading disability, or a mobility impairment that makes it difficult or impossible to read standard print. Over the past five years Bookshare.org has evolved into a worldwide online community that lets people with these print disabilities scan books and exchange them legally through the Website. These electronic books can be accessed through Braille, large print, or synthesized voice technology. You can think of Bookshare.org as Amazon.com meets Napster meets Talking Books for the Blind--but legal!

The collection of books in the Bookshare.org library has been shaped primarily by members and volunteers who submit books they have scanned. Among the titles are bestselling popular books including all of the current New York Times bestseller list and the Harry Potter series. Bookshare.org currently offers more than 35,000 books, magazines, and newspapers available 24/7 in the DAISY (Digital Audio Information System) and BRF digital Braille formats. Bookshare.org now serves approximately 12,000 members. Our members have historically read an average of twenty-one books a year from our service. Due to the commitment of about 1,000 volunteers around the U.S. and a few paid staffers, more than 5,700 new digital books were published on Bookshare.org in 2006. Over 150 newspapers and magazines are also available daily through Bookshare.org in partnership with the National Federation of the Blind through its NFB-NEWSLINE® service.

Subscribers are permitted to use Bookshare.org books for their own personal use. The service uses Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology and contractual agreements with members to maximize personal access to books and minimize abuse of this privilege. Bookshare.org-copyrighted books are not available to the non-print-disabled public. You can, however, search for a Bookshare.org title without being a Bookshare.org member. The Bookshare.org library also offers public domain books available to anyone in the world, with or without a disability.

While Bookshare.org is reaching a growing number of qualified users, we know that barriers still exist for providing books to disabled students and the teachers and schools that serve them. When accessible educational materials are available, they are often very expensive for schools to provide. For example, the Illinois School for the Visually Impaired spends over $250,000 on accessible books each year, yet school administrators report that they are still unable to fulfill their students’ education needs completely.

These problems are compounded by the cost of specialized assistive technology that makes it difficult for students to access what little accessible material exists. Disabled students from low-income families are doubly disadvantaged since they are far less likely to access technologies that their better-off peers take for granted. The Bookshare.org service costs each subscriber a modest $25 sign-up fee plus $50 annually for an unlimited number of books. We provide free assistive technology tools to access these books. To help make the service affordable, we’ve received funding from strategic partners and donors including Adobe Systems, Inc., the NEC Foundation of America, the Microsoft Corporation, the Skoll Foundations, the Omidyar Network, and the Bernard A. Newcomb Fund at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

After years of financing Bookshare.org on a shoestring with grants and subscription fees, we were delighted to have the federal government step in last year to make the service even more accessible. In October of 2007 the U.S. Department of Education awarded Benetech a $32 million, five-year contract to expand the Bookshare.org collection and provide each U.S. student with a print disability free access to the service. I believe that this funding is an unprecedented opportunity quickly and economically to ramp up the number of accessible books for disabled students. There is no reason that disabled students in the U.S. should have any less access to books than their sighted classmates, and Bookshare.org is showing that technology can level the academic playing field.

Back when I was an engineering student in college, I realized that I could develop a reading machine using a font-independent character-recognition system. At that time pattern recognition systems were being used to guide smart bombs. It occurred to me that we could use this technology instead to help create accessible books. Benetech’s predecessor nonprofit organization, Arkenstone, which was founded in 1989, produced tens of thousands of affordable reading machines that used PCs, scanners, and other off-the-shelf technology. Unfortunately, users of the Arkenstone reading machines had to scan the same book over and over. Bookshare.org, which is a direct outgrowth of Arkenstone, allows Arkenstone users and others to share scanned books legally so everyone can benefit. Bookshare.org was created to stop the labor-intensive duplication of work that occurs when people need to scan the same title over and over again. Our motto is: scan once, share many.

Benetech has also developed a technical conversion process that transforms scanned book files into the worldwide DAISY/NISO digital Talking Book standard and the digital Braille (BRF) format. The DAISY/NISO standard allows the distribution of digital books with powerful indexing and bookmarking features. This allows print-disabled readers to navigate quickly from one part of a book to another.
For the past five years Bookshare.org has shown that efficient technology makes it possible for those who serve disabled students to complement and partner with each other to provide accessible books. Bookshare.org’s existing technology infrastructure allows us to expand our collection and services while keeping costs down for students and educators. Bookshare.org’s accessible books in the DAISY format can be read in a standard Web browser. This allows students with PC- or Mac-based assistive technology to read Bookshare.org books with the same tools they use to browse Web pages with their screen reader, screen magnifier, dyslexia reading software, or Braille display.

Bookshare.org provides its subscribers with free dedicated DAISY book reader software that has built-in accessibility features that allow the user to read books aloud without other assistive technology. The service also makes it simple to use assistive technology that can convert Bookshare.org files into forms best suited to an individual student’s particular needs, including large print, Braille, synthesized speech, CD, DVD, or MP3 digital audio. Braille readers enjoy using Bookshare.org with a portable Braille display because it makes Braille much more practical. For example, a portable Braille reader can easily hold one thousand digital books from Bookshare.org, putting an entire Braille library into a small portable device. Bookshare.org books can also be ordered in embossed Braille by members or nonmembers, through our partnership with the Braille Institute.

The Bookshare.org for Education project supported by the U.S. Department of Education award also provides each teacher of disabled students or educational agency staff member with a free Bookshare.org account that allows him or her to search the catalog of immediately available titles. Teachers can also download desired books, request that new educational content be added to the library, and register students for individual Bookshare.org accounts. These individual student accounts are like an unlimited library card for accessible books for postsecondary students and authorized K-12 students. Disabled students need access to the world of books, and we are determined to provide this opportunity.

Of course it is important for publishers to make sure their texts are available to disabled students. Benetech has expanded its partnerships with publishers by accepting books directly in digital formats that we convert to DAISY. This is the fastest way to grow the Bookshare.org collection significantly and improve the quality of its books. Benetech has now established agreements with a number of publishers, including the leading technology book publisher, O’Reilly Media, and Scholastic. We are continuing to pursue these direct relationships with publishers for digital content acquisition. To the extent possible, we expect to use books provided by publishers in the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard (NIMAS) format, and convert these into DAISY digital talking book and digital Braille formats. Thanks to a recent federal law, Bookshare.org is working to make K-12 textbooks accessible to all students with print disabilities in the United States.

Benetech expects to add more than 100,000 educational books to its collection in the next five years and deliver millions of books free to disabled students. We are currently adding 150 to 200 new books each week to our online library. Benetech is working with publishers, authors, and technology companies such as Adobe, Microsoft, and Google to gain access to digital content and to encourage them to make their products accessible to the print-disabled.

Currently only those residing in the United States may access the entire Bookshare.org collection. My dream is continually to expand the Bookshare.org library to serve readers around the world. Bookshare.org now has permission to distribute roughly 3,000 copyrighted titles to people with print disabilities worldwide and offers texts in both English and Spanish. Publishers and authors have voluntarily made their books available for international Bookshare.org members.

No disabled student in the U.S. or anywhere else around the world should receive a second-rate education because he or she lacks accessible books. Benetech will keep working to help make sure that accessible books and the technology to read them are available to everyone.

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