Ryan is starting eighth grade at Swift Creek Middle School in Tallahassee, Florida. In first grade, he was diagnosed with dyslexia. Two years ago he became a Bookshare member and has read close to fifty books since then. In a recent interview, Ryan and his mother, Tippi, share their advice for students with reading barriers and the parents who support them.
Reading at Grade Level with Text-to-Speech Audiobooks
What was reading like before you started using Bookshare and audio narration?
RYAN: I couldn’t enjoy the level of books I wanted to read. While my reading level was only at 2nd–3rd grade, I wanted to read Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and more advanced books that all my friends were reading. Listening to audiobooks was the only way for me to enjoy those books.
Which reading tools and assistive technology devices do you use?
RYAN: I wear prescription glasses with a special yellow tint. I also use an iPad to have it read to me and help with handwriting issues.
Which features are especially helpful to make reading easier?
RYAN: I am an auditory learner, so listening to text-to-speech narration is always the most effective way for me to learn.
What kinds of books do you like to read? Any favorites?
RYAN: I enjoy science fiction, fantasy, adventure, and Greek mythology. In addition to Harry Potter and Percy Jackson, some of my favorite series are the Kingdom Keepers by Ridley Pearson and The Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini.
RYAN: Find a genre that you enjoy. Keep looking and try all types of books until you find what you like. Try audiobooks so you can read books above your reading level. Above all, “Never give up, never surrender!” (quote from the movie Galaxy Quest).
Mother Shares Tips on Advocating for Child with Dyslexia
What advice do you have for parents of students with dyslexia?
TIPPI: Keep saying dyslexia; don’t let teachers or specialists try to discount dyslexia as just “a reading or learning disorder.” Dyslexia has specific characteristics, learning styles, organization styles, and social issues. Continue to support and encourage your child. Don’t refer to your child in terms of his learning issue. His identity is not dyslexic. Instead, say, “he has dyslexia.”
Can you share any examples of “I wish I knew then what I know now”?
TIPPI: I wish someone had told us about Bookshare earlier and that using audiobooks is not a cop out. By listening to books Ryan enjoys, it has given him the confidence to try reading those books. He recognizes words in print because he has heard them being used through audiobooks. While reading print is important, don’t let educators discount the importance of listening.
You know your child and what he or she needs. We tried extra reading programs, summer programs, and tutoring. While children with dyslexia do need extra help, don’t forget that they are working twice as hard as everyone else. They need down time, a chance to be a kid, and plenty of fun. It is important to find the balance between pushing and relaxing.
“Keep saying dyslexia; don’t let teachers or specialists try to discount dyslexia as just a reading or learning disorder.”
What are some ways you work with teachers and administrators to advocate on Ryan’s behalf?
TIPPI: Once Ryan transitioned to middle school, we found it much easier to work with the teachers and administrators. Elementary school was difficult due to the emphasis on grade promotion and standardized testing, so we homeschooled him for third through fifth grade. Since Ryan had an existing IEP he was able to continue to receive reading help. We were concerned about going back to public school, but within the first nine weeks of sixth grade, we realized that Ryan was going to be able to handle it. The middle school staff is wonderful, and teachers continually suggest ways to make school easier for Ryan.
At the beginning of seventh grade Ryan got an iPad so he could type assignments. During IEP meetings Ryan and I discuss what may help, and his teachers and Exceptional Student Education (ESE) supervisor identify different things to try. Some suggestions work and some don’t, but the staff never gives up.
For example, Ryan is an auditory learner, so taking notes is difficult. While trying to write or type what is being said, Ryan will miss the entire lecture. We tried fill-in-the-blank notes, and while this helped, Ryan was still missing parts due to spelling and grammar issues. Now we get the worksheets ahead of time or have the PowerPoint notes printed for him. This way he can follow along in the notes but continue to listen which is how he learns best.
The Bookshare team thanks Ryan and Tippi for sharing their story.
Bookshare is FREE for qualified U.S. students with reading barriers.
St. Louis, Missouri, was the location of the 57th Annual American Council of the Blind (ACB) Conference and Convention in early July. Benetech, the parent nonprofit of Bookshare, the world’s largest library of ebooks for people with reading barriers, is a strong supporter of the ACB and sent me and Jake Brownell, another engineer, to the event. The conference provided moments of inspiration, exciting new assistive technology devices, and a chance to network with other participants.
One of the keynote speakers, professional low vision actor Marilee Talkington, who played a blind character on the television show NCIS, offered these words of encouragement that resonated strongly with the audience:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. Your playing small does not serve the world. Create your own reality, own your magnificence, uniqueness, brilliance and fabulousness.*
Google, Microsoft, and Amazon Make Accessibility a Priority
Austin Hertell, a member of the Google Accessibility Engineering team, talked about Lookout, a new Android app that provides assistance to the blind in object and text recognition. I told Austin that several years ago I participated in a study hosted by Google where a group of international students built one of the first iOS apps to feature object recognition based on machine learning. We’ve come so far since then.
An example of this progress is the Microsoft Seeing AI app that was highlighted at one of the general sessions. It offers text and object recognition, identification of currency, color, and products, light detection and more. In another presentation, Google stated that accessibility improvements to their search results page are coming soon.
Further proof of how far and fast the technology has advanced was provided by Peter Korn, Director of Amazon Accessibility, who mentioned that over 1,500 shows with audio descriptions were added this past year. Fire tablets now feature braille output. Third party sellers must provide alt-text for images. Kindle PC offers table navigation and Math ML support using NVDA. Amazon lockers now speak.
National Library Service Updates its Offerings
Even the NLS is getting in on the act. Karen Keninger, director of the NLS, said they plan to start a pilot project to begin distributing braille eReaders next spring and expect to offer access to their books through Amazon Alexa. BARD Express is a PC-based desktop app that makes it easy for patrons to find and download books.
New Products for Blind and Visually Impaired
A stroll through the exhibit hall gave me the opportunity to explore the various devices and apps designed to assist users and increase independence. Some of the exciting new developments are:
- QBraille-XL – new braille display from HIMS that features a combination of a Perkins style keyboard, plus all the function and modifier keys associated with a QWERTY keyboard.
- Brailliant BI14 – improved braille display from Humanware
- Cyber Eyez – new product that uses machine learning and “smart glasses” to provide optical character recognition, object recognition, color identification, Mood Ring mode, Amazon Alexa, Skype and real time magnification.
- AIRA – a product that connects users with individuals who are trained to provide help.
- Blind Insites LLC – offers a system called WayAround to label clothing, food, and other items. Buttons of varying size are tagged with text labels through an iOS app that reads them back using Voiceover.
- Votec promotes accessible voting using touch screen technology modeled on iOs and Android devices to complete and submit a ballot.
Bookshare Office Hours Answers Members’ Questions
Jake and I co-hosted an informal session with Bookshare members to answer questions and share features under development. The attendees provided valuable feedback on some of the reading tools, variety of books in the collection, and features they would like to see.
All in all, it was a real pleasure to attend the conference. I was reminded of the importance of advocacy, learned about new products, heard interesting presentations, and enjoyed meeting old and new friends.
*Paraphrased from a quote by Marianne Williamson
Bookshare is just one of several inclusive education initiatives at Bookshare’s parent organization, Benetech, a nonprofit that empowers communities with software for social good. We believe that access to information is a universal human right, yet more than ninety percent of books and published materials cannot be read by people with reading barriers such as dyslexia. Our work in education is focused on one big thing: making information accessible to everyone around the world through software.
One of the biggest challenges is making STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) content accessible so that students with learning barriers can see and read equations, tables, and images. Benetech has been fortunate to have Clayton Lewis, Professor of Computer Science and Fellow at the Institute of Cognitive Science at the University of Colorado Boulder, as advisor to Benetech’s DIAGRAM Center to research ways of creating inclusive digital math.
It’s estimated that between 25-35% of students in general education classrooms struggle with math application skills. Think, for a moment, how difficult it is to work through math problems if you can’t see well, have trouble holding a pencil, or struggle to keep your work organized and legible. In a Benetech blog post, Clayton defines inclusive digital math, explains why it is important, and shares how it can benefit all students, not just those with disabilities. He also discusses some technical challenges as well as recent advances in the field.
Read the full blog post to learn more about inclusive digital math and other Benetech education initiatives.