People will tell you that I like to consume information, but that was not always the case. For most of my life, I struggled with reading so badly I never thought I would be scholarly or have a successful career, but my fear of the printed word is no longer present. Once I discovered accessible books with reading technologies, my life changed. Bookshare is one of the resources that gave me a competitive edge.
Today, in my fifties, I will graduate from Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, with a Master of Science in Health and Medical Informatics. The faculty will honor me as the student marshal for my class. This prestigious recognition is given to a student who goes beyond coursework to help their community. I tutor children with dyslexia and teach them about assistive technology. I talk with their parents about Bookshare.
I only wish the online accessible library had existed and my family had known about it when I was a child. If not for my parents, a few teachers, and my faith, I would not have the courage to write about myself today.
Dyslexia – Years of Hidden Pain
I know a thing or two about this learning disability. My childhood was filled with difficult memories. At eight years old, I was diagnosed with dyslexia. I read slowly and poorly with almost no comprehension. It was frightening and debilitating. It raged a storm inside of me that almost knocked me down. I was suspended in school for bad behavior. I built up walls and pushed people away. I felt unworthy.
Some research studies suggest a correlation between depression and people with learning disabilities. People may show signs of withdrawal, aggression, poor self-concept, and unsatisfactory peer relations.
To parents and teachers, I say explore accessible resources and accommodations for your children. Try listening to words read aloud through digital accessible books and seeing them highlighted on a screen. This capability enables me to comprehend more content. I am able to keep pace in the learning process and be measured by my abilities rather than my lack of literacy skills.
I remember downloading my first book from Bookshare in 2007, The Preacher and the Presidents, a story of Reverend Billy Graham by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy. In the book, Graham is reading, The World is Flat by Thomas Freidman. This was the second book I read.
Since that time, I have read hundreds of accessible ebooks, of all types, from novels and scientific health journals to religion, academia, and career development. My Bookshare membership allows me to take full advantage of the online library’s vast collection of over 446,000 titles, thanks to over eight hundred publishers who contribute their digital files to the library.
Reading Takes Discipline
I am the Executive Director of a diagnostic and radiology center in Florida. My responsibilities are to review contracts, oversee a large staff, monitor and manage purchasing, and execute strategic plans. I also work with a technical team. We are developing an app for physicians to receive patient diagnostic reports in real time. I learned how to develop an app using an iOS application book for dummies from Bookshare. I think my tech team really respected that.
For me, reading is a discipline. When I get ready to read a hefty contract or document, I gear up and focus on the task. To comprehend the context, I use Voice Dream Reader and am grateful to Winston Chen, the developer of the application. This reading tool is so easy to use with Bookshare.
Wonderful Feeling to Be Hooked on Knowledge!
It is a wonderful feeling to be hooked on knowledge and to know how really smart we can become. Digital accessible books and technologies have given me this freedom. To people living with a print disability, young or older, I say, fuel your passions and interests using digital accessible books and technologies. Your life will be more meaningful. There is nothing that can stand in your way, except your own motivation.
Special thanks to Davis Graham for sharing his personal story.
Bookshare is the world’s largest online library of accessible ebooks for people with print disabilities. Through its extensive collection of educational and popular titles, specialized book formats, and reading tools, Bookshare offers individuals who cannot read standard print materials the same ease of access that people without disabilities enjoy. In 2007 and 2012, Bookshare received two five-year awards from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), to provide free access for all U.S. students with a qualifying print disability. The Bookshare library now has over 446,000 books and serves more than 400,000 members. Bookshare is an initiative of Benetech, a Palo Alto, CA-based nonprofit that develops and uses technology to create positive social change.
Special thanks to Laura Medcalf for her contribution to the Bookshare blog. We appreciate the mission of the Indiana Assistive Technology Act (INDATA) Project and Laura’s “on the record” testimonial.
“When you read my blog or listen to my podcasts for the Indiana Assistive Technology Act Project (INDATA), you will notice a common theme. I focus on one form of disability or assistive technology that benefits individuals with a single disability (e.g., visual impairment, hearing loss, autism, etc.).
Assistive technology is my passion and my goal is to educate Indiana patrons (“Go Hoosiers!”) and readers across the world who are interested in quality assistive technology resources.
Sometimes, through my research, I discover a resource that is a true gem because it can substantially and positively impact thousands of individuals with a myriad of disabilities, and Bookshare is one such gem.
The online accessible library combined with reading tools and apps are what I refer to as “evergreen” in the assistive technology world. The resource stands the test of time with a history of innovation and services that are more relevant and beneficial today, especially in educating K-12 youth and post-secondary students who qualify.
Six Reasons I Recommend Bookshare:
- Bookshare’s mission and functionality fit the description of what AT is meant to accomplish: improving the functional capabilities of people with disabilities.
- Bookshare benefits persons of all ages with print disabilities, including those who are blind or visually impaired, or those who have a physical or learning disability.
- The library helps people with print disabilities become independent and self-reliant.
- The collection has an abundance of digital accessible titles to satisfy diverse interests from academic to professional and self-development to leisure.
- Members can read accessible ebooks with various reading tools and apps to accommodate many learning and reader preferences.
- Membership is free for U.S. schools and students who qualify.
My longtime respect for Bookshare continues as does my hope that more people with print disabilities can truly enjoy a universal and equitable reading experience. I will continue to cover the evolution and benefits of the online library in my blogs and podcasts as I truly believe it can help to remove barriers so that more individuals can be recognized for their abilities rather than their disabilities. Giving the gift of this reading resource is truly a gem of an opportunity and we can all celebrate that.”
Visit the Bookshare website to sign up as an organization if you represent a U.S. school. For parents or caregivers, you can sign a child up for an individual membership. Both options are free for U.S. students who qualify. There is a minimal annual subscription for non-student and international members.
Laura Medcalf studied special education and creative writing at Ball State University. She is responsible for researching and writing content for INDATA and hosting the Accessibility Minute Podcast, a sixty-second podcast covering everything on accessibility which airs on Fridays.
Easter Seals Crossroads has been providing assistive technology solutions in Indiana since 1979. In 2007, it partnered with the State of Indiana, Bureau of Rehabilitative Services, to establish the Indiana Assistive Technology Act (INDATA) Project. Core services include: information and referral, funding assistance, public awareness and education, device demonstration, device loan, and re-utilized computers and equipment. The project is one of fifty-six similar federally-funded projects designed to increase access to and awareness of assistive technology. To find a similar project in another US state or territory, visit: www.RESNAProjects.org.
Amare Leggette, an energetic eight-year-old from Eastover Elementary School in Charlotte, North Carolina, will compete against nine students in the Apprentice age group at the 2016 National Braille Challenge.
“Amare is a fast reader and eager learner,” says Holly Jeffries, his teacher of the visually impaired. “He has a natural ability to skim, comprehend, make contractions, and knows when to reread text. He also loves new vocabulary words and enjoys putting them on our school braille word wall. I know he is prepared for the competition and is ready to take home the prize!”
Blind since birth, Amare has read since the age of two thanks to his mother, a teacher, who worked with him. His teacher says, “He has incredible recall and memorized his math tables at an early age.”
Now in second grade, Amare reads above grade level and is studying fifth grade math. In the national competition, he will perform a series of high-level skills in spelling, braille contractions, timed reading, comprehension, proofreading, and answering questions.
Ms. Jeffries, a seasoned educator who has taught children (K-5) who are visually-impaired and homebound, says, “Amare is wonderfully bright! In his first week of school, he read twelve braille books – that is one third of our entire school collection. He has already completed all of his third grade reading assignments. Bookshare supplies an excellent resource of knowledge. Using the online library, Amare gets the books he wants to read quickly, and I’ve timed him reading at over 150 words per minute!”
Bookshare, a Key Braille Resource
In Bookshare, English language books can be accessed in contracted or uncontracted braille, in either Unified English Braille (UEB) or English Braille, American Edition (EBAE). Jeffries says, “When you have a student like Amare, who can read a book in just one night, our job is to meet that demand. With Bookshare, we can readily download unlimited accessible books in braille, audio and large print formats.”
Amare is not the only one of Jeffries’ students who is a high performer. They all attend general education classes and are expected to be on par academically using similar curriculum materials. Jeffries says, “Students with disabilities possess such character, determination, and courage. We must set high expectations for them as early as possible so that they can master braille literacy for a strong foundation.”
A college professor encouraged Jeffries to explore Bookshare which is free for U.S. students with qualifying print disabilities. In 2008, she introduced the online accessible library to her district to find curriculum resources in braille, audio, and large print. Several teachers wanted to learn how to use the library at that time. “We signed our school up for an Organizational Membership and then signed students up for Individual Memberships,” says Jeffries. “Today, our school is not hindered by needing a book in braille and not finding it, or having to wait weeks for a copy. School braille books also get worn out, and pages aren’t fresh and crisp. Additionally, it’s not so easy to purchase them in local stores at $30 or $40 each. Students don’t want to carry heavy volumes around because it makes them stand out.”
When Amare isn’t reading or studying math, his teacher selects books and adds them to Amare’s Reading List so that he can relish in them over the summer. One of his favorite stories is Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate Dicamillo. He also enjoys books about space, weather, trains and holiday traditions.
Reading Braille at an Early Age
Amare’s parents read to him at an early age and believe in early intervention. They say their son knows his way around a braille book and can quickly scan the index, table of contents and bookmarked chapters. He also likes to present book reports on biographies and create posters. Mrs. Leggette says, “Bookshare has been a great learning tool for Amare to explore and excel.”
Amare’s parents, along with his grandparents and Ms. Jeffries, will attend the competition and are excited to watch him compete. Jeffries says, “The National Braille Challenge is always motivating! We know that Amare will do his very best. He has already made me, our school, our state, and his family so proud.”
The Bookshare team would also like to congratulate Amare Leggette for his accomplishments. We wish him and all the 2016 contestants much luck and success in the challenge and in all that they aspire to do. Read about the fifty finalists.
About the National Braille Challenge®
The Braille Challenge® is an academic competition designed to motivate blind students to emphasize their study of braille, while rewarding their success with fun-filled, but challenging, local and national events. Any visually-impaired student who reads braille is eligible to participate in the preliminary Challenge contest events, which are held from January through March throughout the U.S. and Canada.
This year, (2016) the preliminary Braille Challenge was held in forty-six sites and proctored by eighty individual teachers of visually-impaired students. Each contestant received a certificate of appreciation in braille and feedback on their performance. The top fifty contestants are then invited to Los Angeles for two days of competition, camaraderie, and fun. Braille Challenge categories include reading comprehension, braille speed and accuracy, proofreading, spelling, and reading tactile charts and graphs.
The 2016 National Braille Challenge is June 17-18th, 2016, at the Los Angeles Center, 741 North Vermont Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90029.
Many thanks to Kate Owen at Thetford Academy for sharing her advocacy of Bookshare and for training more teachers to be proponents of accessible ebooks.
As an educator and librarian, I have always worked to build an inclusive library service to meet the needs of all learners. This year, over one-third of our students are eligible for extra services according to their IEP or 504 plans. Many of these students qualify for Bookshare. The online accessible library has become an integral part of building an inclusive library to accomplish my goal.
Not So Long Ago…
When I first became a school librarian, serving students with print-based disabilities meant surmounting some very real hurdles. The process to obtain accessible formats was tedious and often a barrier to the adoption of accessible materials. Lots of paperwork was given to parents and their child’s physician. Once enrollment was complete, we had to hope that the book assigned to a class was available in audio format. Wonderful volunteers read many books aloud, but even so, it was not uncommon to find that the book we needed simply was not available.
If there was an audio recording it could only be played on a special playback machine. If you were serving more than one or two students in a class, logistics became even more challenging. Once, we had to buy special headphone splitters, which meant a trip over an hour away to the nearest Radio Shack. Bookshare has transformed this process for schools, educators and librarians.
Real-Time Access to Digital Books
Today, with Bookshare, I can instantly provide real-time reading for qualifying students. I can develop Reading Lists ahead of a semester and easily manage last minute curriculum changes.
Bookshare’s library collection is vast, including more than 400,000 titles and the latest versions of textbooks through a partnership with NIMAC. Almost every book we need is available in Bookshare too. Only once, have I requested a book. The process was easy and the title was soon made available.
Help a Student With a Print Disability Read for Life
I want every student to be empowered with tools such as Bookshare that help them become independent and self-directed learners. One way to accomplish this goal is to support classroom teachers by helping them to learn how to use Bookshare’s library effectively. If I am doing my job well, more teachers will become proponents of digital accessible materials and books, just as I am.
In the long run, when qualifying students leave our school with both a high school diploma and an Individual Membership, they can use the online library for a lifetime of learning.
I hope that all students, no matter where they live or the challenges they may face, can accomplish great things, including the freedom to read and explore every book available to mankind.
Are you a librarian or teacher who works with students with visual, learning or physical disabilities? Bookshare can open the world of reading for these students through accessible ebooks and reading tools. Remember, Bookshare is free for qualified U.S. students and schools.
- More books to read. Access over 400,000 titles for school, work, and fun.
- Easy reading. Read directly on an Internet browser with Bookshare Web Reader.
- More ways to read. Read on laptops, Chromebooks, tablets, smartphones and more.
- Better organization. Save books on Reading Lists.
- Easier sharing. Assign books with a Student Login and let them read on their own.
Note: Thetford Academy is the oldest continuously-operating secondary school in Vermont. It is a private school with a public mission — to serve as the high school for students in several surrounding towns. In 2019, the Academy will celebrate its 200th anniversary. Congratulations!