Monday, March 14, 2011

Digital Books, Bookshare, and Accessibility

My day job is in assistive technology. This means that I recommend technology solutions to people with disabilities to hopefully provide an improvement in their standard of living. For example, one of the job duties I perform involves the set-up of voice-controlled computer systems and voice-controlled environmental control units for quadriplegics. But those are just two examples.

Being in this field has some perks and one of them is knowing about all the new stuff that's being created to solve disability issues. What I wanted to talk about today has to do with how digital books can close learning gaps for students with print disabilities.

Let's start with a question: why digital books?

Well, 59% of students surveyed by the Association of Educational Publishers (May 2010) said online textbooks would have a positive impact on their learning.  In contrast, only 56% said the same thing regarding laptop computers. Simply put, digital books equalize educational opportunities. Here are more statistics for you regarding digital accessible materials (a thing I found to be both exciting and surprising):

  • 95% graduated on time.
  • 85% improved academic achievement.
  • 55% increased time spent in general education classrooms and decreased the time spent receiving special education services.
  • 95% decreased reliance on human assistance.
  • 55% experienced increased levels of parent satisfaction.
  • Checkout the National Center on Accessible Instructional Materials for more information.
The Long Reach of Bookshare: serves individuals who are blind
or have severe visual impairments that prevent
them from reading ordinary newspaper print, even
when wearing glasses or contact lenses, individuals
with learning disabilities such as dyslexia, which
interfere with the ability to read print material,
and people with mobility limitations that interfere
with holding or turning the pages of a book.

What is Bookshare?  Bookshare is an online library of accessible media for individuals with print disabilities. Bookshare believes that people with print disabilities should have the same ease of access to books and periodicals that people without disabilities enjoy. It operates under the Chafee Amendment to U.S. Copyright Law, worth a read and located here. It's funded by an award from OSEP, the Office of Special Education Programs in the U.S. Department of Education. Because of this award, Bookshare can offer memberships and books to all U.S. students for free. As of January 2011, it has more than 125,000 members, more than 8,000 schools and other organizations, more than 95,000 titles, and more than a thousand new books added every month.

What does Bookshare offer?
  • Digital books for individuals with print disabilities.
  • FREE memberships for qualified U.S. students through the OSEP award
  • FREE assistive technology software.
  • 24/7 access to books.
  • 2,300 + K-12 textbooks with images.
  • College/University textbooks.
  • Classroom Reading Books.
  • New York Times Bestsellers.
  • Newberry, Caldecott Winners.
  • 1,000 books in Spanish.
  • More than 75 publisher partnerships.
  • 270 national and regular newspapers and magazines.

They basically come from four different places. 1) Volunteers chop-up, scan, proofread, and send the books off via email. 2) NIMAC. 3) Publishers. 4) Universities.

Bookshare uses the DAISY format. But what is this exactly?

DAISY stands for Digital Accessible Information System. In other words, reading books on a computer using visual presentation and/or synthetic speech (multimodal). Examples of DAISY-Compatible AT software are:

(NOTE THAT HumanWare Victor Reader Soft and Don Johnston READ:OutLoud Windows and Macintosh both have FREE versions available for download for Bookshare members. Additionally, both feature FREE high-quality Acapela voices)
  • Don Johnston READ:OutLoud Windows and Macintosh.
  • HumanWare Victor Reader Soft.
  • Kurzweil 3000.
  • TextHelp Read & Write Gold.
  • Freedom Scientific WYNN.
  • Freedom Scientific OpenBook.
  • GhPlayer.
  • Dolphin EasyReader.
  • DAISY Consortium AMIS.
  • Nextup TextAloud.
  • Innovative Rehabilitation Technology eClipseReader.
  • DAISY software players.
If you want to find out more, I suggest visiting the Bookshare website. Anyway, with all the buzz in the writing circles about the impact of ebooks and a debate on what it means to you as a writer, I thought I would share a little examined aspect of digital access with you that I see as a huge positive impact on the world.  Know that someday, when you get published, your writing may be enjoyed by someone that is severely disabled. If it were just 20-years earlier, they may never have been given the opportunity to enjoy what you wrote. I think that's a miracle in and of itself and should be something of which you can be proud.


  1. Hey Michael, this is outstanding information! I agree completely; digital is opening up tons of opportunities for readers, and might go a long way in combating the cost prohibitiveness that paper books can sometimes have.

    Great post!

  2. I've never thought about digital textbooks. Textbooks are so expensive. I bought used whenever I could, and then resold to the bookstore when I was done, at a very sad payback price. I could see digital textbooks being very attractive to students.

  3. Wow, that is cool. About 15-20 years ago when my one grandma was declared legally blind she started getting books on tape in the mail. I used to think that was pretty cool to get books mailed right to your door. Progress marches on!

  4. Fascinating to learn about how your day job and your writing life may intersect.

    BTW - thanks for my Stylish Blogger nod!

  5. This will definitely be great for students. For some reason they get charged the most for their books when publishers KNOW they don't have much money.

  6. I loved the title of this post (and the content, too). Reading is so important to me that i've often said I'd rather lose my legs or hands than my eyesight. Yay, silly, huh? I'm so glad that reading is an option for almost anyone with any kind of disability. Wonderful!

  7. Thanks for all the positive comments everyone. I actually had no idea how important digital books are to the disabled until I started working with them on a daily basis. Then I realized that there are adults my age and older that have not had opportunites to read books at all because of quadriplegia and are for the first time, exploring books on their computers. Ebooks are making the world a better place for handicapped individuals everywhere as long as there is access to a p.c.

  8. I think the leaps in technology are really cool and I'm glad people with diabilities are finally getting a chance to enjoy them. Your job sounds like it is really rewarding!

  9. What important work you do. And what an interesting post. You have given me a whole new appreciation for digital books.

  10. I think technology used in this way is great and in fact important. Cheers to you for blogging on this!!! I worry (and have blogged some on my concern in the past and may again the future) about ebooks because too many publishers see it as a way to get out of publishing hard copies of books. For poor people, the cost for the technology necessary to read ebooks isn't realistic. This means that there is less access to literature to people without money. I don't see any reason there shouldn't be both hard copies and ebooks except that publishers simply aren't interested in investing the money in it. It's super cheap to publish an ebook- virtually cost free (although paperback books aren't that expensive either)! But what I fear is that too many people see it as just the next phase- like albums being phased out by CDs or DVDs being phased out by blueray disks so the book fades away meaning that libraries will not have the selection for the people who really need it. Geez, I'm getting tired. I am not sure that even made sense...

  11. I have to be honest, I didn't quite understand all the technical terminology in your post . . . but caught enough to understand that this is a good thing. I've never stopped to think about how different computer technologies could help people who suffer from certain disabilities (like dyslexia, for instance).

    Just one more reason we should be comfortable with the ebook technology heading our way!