Special Education

Redefining Books

A new digital book-sharing service gives students with disabilities access to books in alternative content formats.
By Nirvi Shah — February 29, 2012 5 min read
Fourth grader Maurice Van Lowe, 9, uses Bookshare to read The Chocolate Touch at Burning Tree Elementary School in Bethesda, Md. The nonprofit Bookshare provides free audio books for children with disabilities. —Nicole Frugé

When 4th grade teacher Heather Whitby sat down for a book discussion recently with a group of students at her Bethesda, Md., elementary school, other students read on their own, including two who a year ago might not have been able to do so.

Because of their disabilities, Kyle Nordheimer and Maurice Van Lowe struggle with traditional printed text. But, thanks to Bookshare, a nonprofit program that provides free electronic copies of books to students with certain disabilities, both boys watched computer screens scroll through the text of The Chocolate Touch, listening to it at the same time.

Inspired by Napster, the music-sharing service, Bookshare turns books into a format that can be read aloud by computers, magnified, and spaced differently so that students with vision problems or learning disabilities can read them. The reformatted books are even available at the same time new releases reach bookstore shelves, unlike typical audiobooks.


Its services are an example of how e-book technology, taking off with consumers, has powerful potential for students who previously relied on more cumbersome and difficult-to-obtain alternatives to the traditional book.

For qualifying schoolchildren, Bookshare is free, underwritten by a $32 million infusion from the U.S. Department of Education four years ago that’s led to 150,000 student Bookshare memberships across the nation. Last year, the department’s Office of Special Education Programs gave the Palo Alto-based organization another $3 million to expand its work.

Helping Frustrated Readers

Typically, students who can’t read traditional books begin falling behind on the first day of school.

Unable to learn at all from the ubiquitous printed materials at school, or hampered because they learn more slowly than their peers, such students often have had to wait months until audiobooks became available, or depend on a school employee to deconstruct a particular text, scan it, and convert it into a digital file to be read aloud by the right software. An alternative is for students to use special, sometimes unwieldy, equipment they lug from class to class that magnifies the words in worksheets and books.

Instead of text being a source of information or inspiration, it’s too often been the cause of frustration.

“They fell behind and became frustrated through no fault of their own,” Kerri Larkin, the director of academic programs in the office of special education for the District of Columbia school system, says of such students.

Near the end of last school year, the 45,000-student district decided to arrange for a Bookshare membership for students with print disabilities—a range of conditions that hinder the ability to read words in a book or on paper. As eligible students’ education plans are updated, Bookshare memberships will be added to them, Larkin says.

Before Bookshare, Carlos Zacarias walked around school with a device that resembled an overhead projector.Zacarias, a junior at the district’s Woodrow Wilson High School who has low vision, would place reading material at the bottom and it would be magnified on an attached screen.

“It really got on my nerves. I had to move from class to class” with the device, he says. Now, he sports a laptop he can use to log in to Bookshare from any class, a change that doesn’t advertise his disability the way the bulky equipment did.

A Faster Process

Traditional audiobooks take longer to reach schools because they typically involve someone going into a studio and reading a book aloud. Bookshare’s process is much faster, says Betsy Beaumon, vice president and general manager of the company. The organization has agreements with about 160 publishers, which send the nonprofit an electronic version of a book as soon as it is published.

“We get an electronic feed from our publishers the same time [a book] is hitting Amazon, the same time it’s hitting iTunes,” Beaumon says. Instead of using human voices, Bookshare book voices are computer-generated.

Bookshare memberships are for students who are blind, have low vision, have learning disabilities including severe dyslexia, or have a disability such as cerebral palsy that could keep them from holding a book. Such students have what are collectively called print disabilities—a distinct departure from saying “learning disabilities,” says David Rose, the chief education officer at the nonprofit Center for Applied Special Technology, in Wakefield, Mass.

Using the phrase “print disability” says Rose, “is co-locating the problem. Print is part of the problem.”

Learning Curve

Whether electronic copies of books come from publishers or from the federal textbook repository (created under federal special education law), they can’t be used by individuals. The copies must first be converted into a usable format by Bookshare or another qualifiying organizations under an amendment to the copyright law. Bookshare has amassed more than 125,000 titles for students to download, and the nonprofit takes requests when its library doesn’t hold something a student needs.

Books and other copyright material provided through Bookshare must be guarded closely. Only students with proof of a qualifying disability can use the free Bookshare books, Beaumon says. (The organization separate service for adults.)

Every book downloaded has its own digital fingerprint to ensure it is used for just one student. Even if a teacher has a half-dozen students in a class who qualify, books must be acquired separately for each student.

John King, a junior at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Md., who has a learning disability, says on his own it may take him four minutes to read a single page of a book, making homework time-consuming. Before he learned about Bookshare in 8th grade, any assignments that involved a lot of reading crowded out the others, and sometimes went undone.

“I’m definitely enjoying the reading a lot more,” says King. “It was just such an improvement from taking hours to taking an hour or less.”

Before joining Bookshare, the Montgomery County, Md., school district where he is enrolled created its own version of electronic books, says Linda Wilson, who oversees technology for high-incidence disabilities in the nearly 147,000-student district. For some titles, the district still does.

Using Bookshare is much faster, Wilson says, although the district has had to devote many hours of training to explain what it is and how to use it. Teachers have to be educated on the technical side of using Bookshare as well as the copyright laws involved.

Part of the latest federal grant for Bookshare will be devoted to a partnership with the American Institutes of Research, a Washington-based research group, to provide free professional development to increase the use of Bookshare.

This article originally appeared, in a different format, in Education Week.

A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 2012 edition of Teacher PD Sourcebook as Redefining Books


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