American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections Winter 2023 OPPORTUNITIES
by Charles LaPierre and Deborah Kent Stein
From the Editor: I grew up in the era that many blind people refer to as the Book Famine. Only a handful of books were transcribed into Braille or produced as Talking Books each year, and they could be hard to come by. New Jersey, where I lived, was served by the regional Braille and Talking Book Library in faraway Philadelphia. I remember mailing off long lists of the books I wanted to read—calling the library long distance was unthinkably expensive! Then I waited hopefully for weeks or even months. At last the heavy cartons of Braille and Talking Books arrived, sometimes stacked waist high on the front porch. If I was lucky, some of the books that landed at my house were among those I had requested. As often as not, though, those cartons contained surprises, books I'd never even heard of before. Whatever they were, I read them anyway.
On the plus side, the Book Famine taught me to value books as the treasures they truly are. It also meant that I lived with the endless frustration of not being able to get my hands on the books I longed to read. When I was a child, even popular series such as Nancy Drew and the Bobsey Twins were nonexistent in the Library of Congress (now NLS) collection. When I got older, the bestsellers I wanted to read might not become available for three years or even more.
In my wildest imaginings, I never thought that someday I would be able to type in a book title and have that book at my fingertips in a matter of seconds. Bookshare brought this astounding reality into my life and the lives of blind and print-disabled people all over the world. Today the Bookshare collection contains 1,184,000 titles and counting! To catch up on the latest developments at Bookshare, I spoke with Benetech's Principal, Accessibility and Content Architect Charles LaPierre.
Bookshare receives countless letters of appreciation from readers of all ages and backgrounds. "I love being able to pick any book I want on Bookshare. When someone talked about a book in class, I would go home, download it, and read it that night," says Ellashae, a high school senior from Atlanta. "I read so many books that I was known as 'the girl who reads', and not 'the blind girl.'"
"I am legally blind. I have used Bookshare since I started first grade," says a high school student named Shmuel. "This has been my best resource for educational and leisure reading material. The enormous library and various formats available have enabled me to read books in large print, audio, Braille, and digitally. Bookshare is an essential component of my academic progress."
Since its founding in 2001, Bookshare has become an essential resource for blind and print-disabled students from the K-12 grades through college and graduate studies. It also serves the leisure and professional reading needs of people who are no longer in school.
Bookshare was founded by philanthropist Jim Fruchterman as part of Benetech, a nonprofit that works toward equitable access to education by providing technology and services to break down systemic barriers and empower all learners, regardless of ability. Benetech is committed to levering technology to positively impact students from under-served, under-resourced, and historically marginalized communities. As early as 1989 Fruchterman pioneered the use of OCR scanning for blind readers when he developed the Arkenstone Reading System.
Bookshare began operation at a time when the Internet was still relatively new, and people were just starting to realize its immense potential. When Bookshare began operation, most of the titles in the collection were submitted by blind volunteers who busily scanned print books at home, using OCR scanners.
Over the years Bookshare developed relationships with many mainstream and university publishers who submitted electronic versions of their titles to the collection. Today Bookshare has relationships with more than one thousand publishers that contribute books. These include major educational houses such as Wiley, Pearson, and MacMillan Learning.
Beginning in 2007 Bookshare has been awarded a series of five-year allocations from the US Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP). These grants provide free access to Bookshare for all K-12 students in the United States who have qualifying print disabilities. More than one million US students are currently registered as Bookshare users.
The OSEP grants also cover qualifying postsecondary students who have individual accounts. Many colleges and universities subscribe to Bookshare through their Offices for Disabled Students' Services (DSS), making this resource available to students registered for these services. For non-students, a Bookshare membership costs fifty dollars per year.
Over the years Bookshare has worked to meet the diverse needs of readers with print disabilities, including people who are blind and visually-impaired, people with severe dyslexia, and those with physical disabilities such as cerebral palsy that affect the ability to handle traditional hardcopy books. Since the early days, Bookshare titles have been available in MS Word, DAISY, and BRF (Braille Ready Format).
The new Bookshare Reader Suite has been designed to make books accessible to people with a wide assortment of reading needs. It allows readers to hear a book read aloud while they follow along on a Braille display or with highlighted print text on the screen. Readers can adjust the reading speed, font, and color of the text, and they can choose among a variety of reading voices. Readers can navigate easily by page or chapter and bookmark their reading spot to find it again later on. The Bookshare Reader Suite is available for PC and Apple computers as well as iOS and Android mobile devices and Alexa-enabled smart speakers. A full user guide is available in English and Spanish.
For Braille readers, Bookshare offers several options. Most titles are available in BRF as either contracted or uncontracted Braille files. Titles can be read in English Braille American Edition or in Unified English Braille (UEB). Braille files can be translated with a program such as Duxbury or read on a Braille notetaker.
Any Bookshare title in BRF or UEB format can be transcribed to create a hard copy. Once the file is downloaded and opened on a computer, it can be transcribed with Duxbury or another Braille embossing program. If you do not have access to a Braille embosser, you can arrange to have the file embossed by an outside source. American Printing House for the Blind (APH) and the National Library Service Directory of Producers of Accessible Materials maintain lists of individuals and companies that can turn Braille files into embossed volumes.
Recently Bookshare acquired about five thousand audiobooks read by human readers. For the most part, these titles were donated by publishers, and Bookshare added them to its ever-growing collection. These audiobooks may not meet the needs of students, but they are likely to appeal to the casual reader.
As Benetech's Principal, Accessibility and Content Architect, Charles LaPierre works to improve the accessibility of all Bookshare titles. "I help publishers create more accessible files from the get-go," he explains. "We work with the conversion vendors that publishers hire to create their ePub files, and we try to make sure that the end product is accessible. We work to keep everyone up-to-date so we don't find ourselves at cross-purposes."
One area where Bookshare hopes to improve is the production of accessible graphics. For several years Bookshare partnered with the Diagram Center, a consortium of educators, parents, students, and developers collaborating to meet the access needs of students with disabilities. The Diagram Project created detailed verbal descriptions of charts, graphs, maps, and other graphics for titles in the Bookshare collection. Unfortunately, funding for this work dried up a few years ago. At this point descriptions of graphics in Bookshare files are quite limited.
In the coming years, Bookshare hopes to use AI (artificial intelligence) to improve the quality of books in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). This conversation is spurred by the development of multi-line Braille displays that will give readers access to refreshable Braille graphics. A worldwide consortium is working to make electronic STEM materials fully accessible for Braille users.
Right now Bookshare offers titles in almost sixty languages. The bulk of the collection consists of English titles, with Spanish the next most widely represented language. Other Bookshare languages include French, German, Portuguese, Arabic, Turkish, Hindi, Urdu, and Swahili. Bookshare is now available to readers in sixty-five countries. This expansion is thanks in part to the passage of the Marrakesh Treaty, which allows books for people with print disabilities to be shared across borders.
Bookshare is also concerned to meet the needs of students enrolled in schools in the United States for whom English is a second language. Many students can benefit from access to titles in their native language. Spanish is the first language of the largest group of English language learners. Bookshare also sees a need for books in a host of languages from all parts of the globe. There is also a need for titles in some indigenous languages such as Diné, the language of the Navajo Nation.
The pandemic was at its height when Bookshare reached a major milestone, adding its one millionth title to the collection. "It certainly was a great achievement," Charles LaPierre states, "but we didn't publicize it very much. We felt we still needed to double down on quality. We're trying hard to get the books people need and want to read. We still need to build relationships with more publishers. Many publishers still don't partner with us. They don't give us ePub versions of their books, so a lot of titles still have to be scanned for people who need them."
When Bookshare began operations, its headquarters were in Palo Alto, California. Today Bookshare staff operate virtually from all over the US. Although most new titles are contributed by the publishers, volunteers still submit and proofread hundreds of books every year.
The entirety of Bookshare's vast collection is housed in the Cloud. Bookshare uses multiple Cloud storage sites to ensure that the precious collection will survive any future calamity. Through the years ahead Bookshare will keep on growing.
To explore Bookshare's collection and to sign up for service, visit bookshare.org.