Disabled Students Need Accessible Books

People with print disabilities should have affordable, accessible technology that allows them to easily read. Everyone should have equal access to the world of ideas.
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There was a time, not that long ago, when children who were blind, or had another kind of disability that prevented them from easily reading a printed book, were pretty much out of luck when it came to reading.

If a child with a print disability wanted to read a school textbook, or even a best-seller about their favorite sports star, he or she would hope that the book was among the 5% of books recorded on audiotape or published in Braille. If the child was lucky, they might have a family member who was willing to read to them out loud.

When inexpensive scanners became available in the mid-1990s, things began to change. People started scanning books using optical character recognition. This allowed people to transform text into speech using a voice synthesizer, enlarge the text for someone with low vision, or convert it into printed or electronic Braille.

OCR was a big step forward, but it takes three hours to scan a book. Imagine standing at the library photocopier making copies of all the pages of a book that you want to read. That's a big barrier to reading.

Many of us know families who have kids with severe print disabilities, especially dyslexia. We see the struggles these families face, helping their child who may have plenty of brains, but struggles hard to read. How can we help these students get an equal crack at opportunity?

School is a big enough challenge without a disability like blindness or dyslexia getting in the way. It's pretty obvious that if you can't succeed in school because you can't read your textbooks, you are going to have tough time succeeding in the workplace and navigating the information economy.

Twenty years, I developed the affordable Arkenstone reading machine for the blind which used OCR to scan books. But I was always looking for better technology to help disabled people read. The solution came to me one night back in 1999 when my then-14-year-old son, Jimmy, introduced me to a beta version of Napster. After spending an hour with Jimmy listening to music, I was hooked on this glorious technology - until I found out we weren't paying for the music.

But, it was so cool!

I asked my attorney, Gerry Davis, whether we could use Napster's peer-to-peer approach to content and get books to people with print disabilities. He came back with surprising news: there's a copyright law exemption that makes scanning books for people with disabilities legal. HuffPo readers might remember a recent post about the battles to extend the benefits of this exemption globally through an international treaty.

Our online digital library, Bookshare, was launched soon thereafter. My shorthand description of Bookshare is Amazon meets Napster meets Talking Books for the Blind, but legal.

How does it work? In the simplest terms, people scan books and we share them online with readers who have qualifying disabilities. It relies on you. If you love books, and want to see them available to people who desperately want equal access to literacy, volunteer to proofread a book for Bookshare.

The Bookshare collection has been built by a community of people with disabilities, their families, teachers and schools, as well as people who simply love books and want to help. You can help us out by donating your time, your books or funds to help us expand the library. World class authors and publishers have also given us permission to make their books available to Bookshare members worldwide and major university presses have donated electronic copies of their books.

Thanks for these efforts, Bookshare is adding more than 1,000 books a month and now offers more than 50,000 books in its collection. More than 60,000 members have unlimited access to Bookshare for a nominal subscription fee. Bookshare is used not just by blind people and people with learning disabilities, but also by readers with low vision and mobility impairments that makes it difficult to read a traditional book.

Every New York Times bestseller; every Newbery Award winning children's book, and many textbooks are available to Bookshare members. The U.S. Department of Education was so excited about this that it's paying for every American student, of any age, to get access to Bookshare and talking ebook software for free.

Many great organizations have stepped forward to partner with Bookshare. Online book vendor, Better World Books, chops and scans used books inside their book warehouse and uploads them for our volunteers to proofread. Technology companies around the world have developed applications that allow members to read Bookshare texts on their accessible mobile devices and cell phones.

Although we have the funding to provide a free library card to accessible books for every kid in the U.S. with a print disability, many people don't know about Bookshare. You can help by spreading the word, especially to students.

If you know of a person with a print disability who needs Bookshare, or a family whose child could benefit, let them know about the service. We are now building a movement to provide Bookshare to people with print disabilities around the world. We've already launched Bookshare in India at a deeply subsidized price - the equivalent of $8 a year. If you want to pitch in financially, you can help extend Bookshare to other developing countries.

We believe that people with print disabilities should have affordable, accessible technology that allows them to easily read. Everyone should have equal access to the world of ideas, to the text you are reading right now - to the information at your fingertips. Innovative technology, and your efforts, can deliver equal access to print for everybody.