Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Making the Book Truly Accessible for All Students

Schools are back in session, and with them millions of American children who struggle daily to learn using traditional printed books. Having learning disabilities or various learning differences, they need alternative reading environments that rely on their strengths rather than on their weaknesses. This includes accessible educational materials, such as e-books that can be used with computers, or mobile devices that display enlarged text or read the book aloud while also highlighting text.

We have the technological innovations to help these children and their families and educators, who are looking for strategies to aid their success. Yet, we are still far from where we need to be in order to give them equal opportunity to succeed in school and beyond.

In September 2007, the U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) selected our successful Booksharelibrary as the provider of accessible materials to every student in the U.S. with a legally qualifying print disability per the Chafee Amendment to the Copyright Act. We’re extremely proud of what we’ve accomplished with Bookshare over the past four years and are hopeful that by the end of our OSEP contract term, we’ll have delivered double the results we initially proposed. Bookshare has grown into the largest online digital library of accessible books and periodicals in the U.S., with a collection of over 126,000 books (and counting) that currently serves more than 148,000 members, including over 143,000 students.

Qualifying students, however, represent but a small fraction of those who can benefit from accessible books. Everyday, we have to turn down students who are disadvantaged and need reading accommodations, but are not “disadvantaged enough” to be considered qualified for Bookshare services. Nor can they buy accessible content from the commercial sector.

The International Dyslexia Association calls these students “SEEDS kids,” for “struggling readers, English language learners, economically disadvantaged youth, dyslexia students and specific learning disability students.” They include struggling readers whose learning problems have never been fully diagnosed. Economically disadvantaged individuals are more likely to report having learning disabilities than the rest of the population. Plus, this includes individuals with mild dyslexia and those with a variety of specific learning and other disabilities. Thousands of students with differing learning styles and language requirements can also benefit greatly from accessible books.

There are some 7.5 million students (15% of the U.S. public school population) who could benefit from accessible books but currently go without them or get them at great cost in both time and funds to schools and educators. They deserve an equal shot at learning and realizing their potential.

Benetech is working on a new program that will serve these students who are not qualified under the copyright exemption. We call it Bookaccess: a cost effective “fulfillment engine” that will deliver digital accessible books to commercial partners (like publishers) who would sell them to customers.

The conditions for launching Bookaccess are on our side: technology convergence is making the production of accessible digital content simply a click of a button away; the federal government is pushing states to find methods to meet the special needs of all their students; and we already get tremendous support from publishers.
We revolutionized the accessibility of books through Bookshare for people with severe print-related disabilities. Our next bold step is to diffuse this innovation into the service of all of humanity who might need it!

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