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A New Perspective on Literacy for Students with Low Vision

2015 November 24

By guest author Allison Hilliker

Photo of Allison HillikerImagine a reading solution where students with low vision could read for an extended period of time without eye fatigue. A solution where their ability to distinguish among letters was not dependent upon print size, contrast, lighting, color, or font style. Where skimming or rereading a paragraph or page wouldn’t be cause for frustration or eye strain. Where students could easily discern the subtleties of spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and paragraph layout. Imagine a reading option in which individuals didn’t have to hold the book close to their face or hunch over a tablet screen in order to read. Well, there is a reading solution that enables students to accomplish this and more. That solution is Braille.

Braille? Seriously? Why?

Braille readers who have varying degrees of usable sight have demonstrated how they have been able to read on or above grade level simply by using Braille. For decades, Braille has enabled individuals to compete effectively with their sighted classmates while in higher education and with colleagues in the workplace. Studies have shown that, while there is a high rate of unemployment among adults who are blind or visually impaired, the majority of those individuals who are employed use Braille. (Bell & Mino, 2013; Ryles, 1996). These facts demonstrate that there is a tremendous benefit to students who obtain Braille skills and use Braille consistently.

But Wait!  These Students Have Partial Sight

An individual need not be totally blind, or even close to it, in order to benefit from reading Braille. Many young students with low vision are able to keep pace with their peers in primary grades because the print is large and/or minimal on any one page. As these students progress to upper grades, however, the print decreases in size and increases in volume. These changes often cause frustration and lead students to avoid reading altogether or resort to using audio only. This causes a wider gap between students with visual impairments and their peers. In contrast, when a student with partial sight becomes proficient in Braille, the student has the option to choose which reading media (print or Braille) works best in any given situation. As a result, low vision Braille readers will be equipped with multiple tools to obtain success.

Isn’t Braille Difficult and Time Consuming to Learn?

No. It’s often believed that Braille is difficult, tedious, and time consuming to learn, and it results in low comprehension levels. However, experiences reported by Braille-reading adults have demonstrated the opposite. Many adult Braille readers read with a proficiency level equal to that of their sighted friends and colleagues. (Ryles, 1996). Students who learn Braille and are encouraged to practice it daily emerge with reading speeds and comprehension skills that are comparable to their sighted peers.

During preschool, a sighted child typically begins to learn reading skills in print. When a preschool-aged child with a visual impairment learns reading in a similar manner to sighted classmates, but uses Braille instead of print, both learners typically develop similar reading abilities. It may or may not take a little longer for older students just beginning Braille to become proficient readers. However, with daily encouragement and practice, all students can develop Braille skills quickly and become fluent readers like their sighted counterparts who use print.

Braille itself is not inherently slower or more difficult to read than print, it’s just that when individuals learn anything later in life, it may seem harder at the beginning. The important thing is for teachers to have a positive attitude about Braille so that students will be motivated to use it even if it is difficult in the beginning.

Won’t My Students Resist Learning Braille?

If an instructor is excited about Braille, students are likely to be as well. Enthusiasm for Braille will reduce resistance to using it. Exposing students to role models who use Braille (especially individuals who are the same age as the learners), can be encouraging. Often, students learning Braille feel isolated because they believe they are the only Braille readers in the area or because they are the only Braille reader they know. Introducing students with low vision to other Braille users can normalize Braille and motivate them to learn to read just as well or better as others in either Braille or print.

It is normal for children, and some adults for that matter, to resist working on tasks that are difficult at first. Just like with other skills, daily practice will make Braille much easier. A positive attitude about Braille will go a long way toward encouraging students. If an instructor has the attitude that Braille is important, exciting, and fun to use, students will be more likely to believe the same.

What about Audio Reading, Isn’t That Sufficient?

While listening to a book may seem to be a viable alternative, it has some limitations. Adults who primarily listened to books instead of actively reading for themselves when they were younger often discovered they later struggled with academic writing. The audio format prevented them from obtaining proficiency in spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and other writing skills. Not every writing challenge can be resolved through spell-check, and two words that sound the same can be spelled differently. Limited opportunities for interacting with text while young can create difficulties with writing while pursuing higher education or employment. Braille, when presented in a positive way and reinforced with practice, eliminates those deficiencies.

In addition, an audio format does not allow students to review notes while giving a presentation or reading a speech aloud. This may not seem like an important task for younger students, but presentation skills are often required in higher education and some employment settings. Holding a printed page close to one’s face, or speaking to a group with an ear bud in one ear, may not present a professional impression. On the contrary, a skilled Braille reader skimming Braille notes while facing and engaging the audience can be extremely effective. In this way Braille can enable students to read aloud with confidence and poise.

Braille may also be preferable to audio options for labeling important items such as medication bottles, school folders, etc. Braille can be useful for making board/card games accessible, reading books aloud to younger children, or even keeping lists for groceries, passwords, guests, and so on.

Does Learning Braille Mean That Students Can Never Use Print?

Absolutely not. Students with low vision are not required to use Braille exclusively. While individuals will become more proficient readers by using Braille daily, they may still read print when, and if, it meets their low vision requirements such as print size, color contrast, font style, etc. Having proficient Braille skills and the ability to read print presents students with two viable options: Braille or print. Many successful students with low vision are competent readers in both Braille and print (either large print or via magnification devices) and are skilled in deciding which reading media is best for any given situation. This expertise develops over time with practice and confidence. Experienced Braille readers often discover that Braille is the most effective option the majority of the time while other formats may be options when Braille is unavailable. In addition, students’ preferences for Braille over print are likely to increase as their reading becomes faster and more fluent. The optimal scenario for a student with low vision who is proficient in Braille is having several media options from which to choose.

Won’t Students Feel Self-Conscious About Reading Braille?

There is no shame in anyone with partial sight choosing to read Braille in addition to or instead of other formats. Braille has been a respectable method of media for over one hundred years. Many young students are amazed to learn that Braille was invented by a French boy, Louis Braille, at age fifteen — perhaps close to their own age. As with many subjects, an instructor’s positive attitude toward Braille helps students develop a positive attitude too.

Allison Hilliker demonstrating how she teaches braille using a muffin tin and balls Students with low vision may already feel self-conscious if they have to read enlarged text on oversized paper; hold papers close to their face; hunch over a table to read textbooks, worksheets, or tablets; or they must sit very close to a computer screen. Rather, students who perfect Braille reading skills may find that they are more like their sighted classmates because they are comfortable reading in a variety of settings.

Braille enables a student to sit up proudly while reading with confidence. Any student who reads well is more likely to be comfortable reading in groups, regardless of media choice. Moreover, Braille readers can read regardless of lighting quality or eye fatigue. The versatility of Braille may motivate a student to read more often. In addition, introducing students to Braille as young as possible can increase acceptance and lead to a smoother learning process.

Braille readers who can read fluidly, quickly, and without stress are more likely to be confident and have higher cognitive levels than poor readers who struggle to use the same media options (regular print) as their peers.

How Can Parents and Educators Get On Board with Braille?

The National Reading Media Assessment (NRMA) is a free assessment tool available to instructors that uses current research to determine whether a student with a visual impairment would benefit from learning Braille or print as their primary media. The results of this assessment may be shared with other members of a student’s education team such as parents, administrators, and other teachers. Seeing a demonstrated need for Braille instruction may help others understand the importance of Braille. With a positive approach toward Braille and the belief that Braille will help students be successful in education and employment, instructors may find that others will be more open toward Braille as an option. Feel free to explain to others that Braille does not mean the student with low vision will no longer use any remaining vision. Rather, Braille enhances one’s education by adding an additional literacy tool to use when vision may not be reliable. Through reading Braille, a student’s confidence grows because reading efficiently in any situation has occurred.

Does Bookshare Have Books in Braille?

Yes! All of Bookshare’s English language books are available in Braille Ready Format (BRF). Bookshare is currently testing Unified English Braille (UEB) which will be officially released on our site in early 2016. This feature will not only allow access to hundreds of thousands of books in this code, but will also allow instructors to be able to demonstrate the new UEB standard through books that will engage readers with diverse interests. Titles can be downloaded by logging into Bookshare, searching for a book, and then selecting BRF from the format dropdown box. Note that some DAISY readers can read the DAISY text format using an electronic Braille display. Such displays will show text in Braille even if it has not been directly translated into Braille by other means. We invite you to sign up and try one of our hundreds of thousands of Braille books today!

Additional Resources:

About the author: Allison Hilliker provides Bookshare customer support for Benetech’s Global Literacy program. She has a Bachelor of Science degree from Arizona State University, serves as secretary for the National Association to Promote the Use of Braille, and has been a part of the Benetech team for over eight years. Allison and her fiancé maintain the Blind Access Journal website and podcast and are expecting their first child in January. As a legally blind individual who has experience reading both Braille and print, Allison has a special passion for the topic of literacy for people who are partially sighted.



  1. Bell, E. C., & Mino, N. M. (2013). Blind and visually impaired adult rehabilitation and employment survey: Final results. Journal of Blindness Innovation and Research, 3(1). Retrieved from doi:
  2. Ryles, R., (1996), “The Impact of Braille Reading Skills on Employment, Income, Education, and Reading Habits,” Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness 90(3), 219-226.

Making a Direct Impact on the Lives of People with Vision Loss

2015 November 19

Disability advocates are often the first to say that people who are blind or visually impaired make excellent workers. Why? In addition to their unique strengths and talents, these workers are more likely to use assistive technology and have specific workforce training. They may have mentors, teachers, and close family members who support them. They may also take full advantage of knowledge resources, like Bookshare, to learn about their professional interests.

Bill Powell working with an adult student on a computerWhen it comes to knowing about workers who are blind and about braille literacy and resources to train blind workers, Bookshare member Bill Powell, an Assistive Technology Director for Bosma Enterprises, comes to mind. This Indianapolis nonprofit provides employment services, rehabilitation, and outreach for adults who are blind. The organization is one of the largest employers of people with vision loss in industries such as health and safety, printing, warehousing, contract packaging, hearing aids, and more.

Mr. Powell has been blind since birth with optic nerve hypoplasia. Early in his childhood, he attended the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired and eventually went to public school. He graduated from college and taught in public school for twenty-five years. Bill credits his mentor, a high school coach, for helping him rise above lackluster expectations that had been set for him as an adolescent. “He taught me to wrestle by using math formulas in my head,” said Bill. “This coach taught me to live life to the fullest and not just to survive, and that’s what I tried to accomplish in my life.”

During his tenure in college, Bill trained future teachers at the University of Nebraska and Indiana State University to use the literary Braille code and assistive technologies. He developed educational curriculum and wrote books. He lectured at the University of Vienna, co-chaired a special thematic session on service delivery at the University of Paris, and authored two assistive technology training websites ( and for teachers and students.

Many of Bill’s students graduated from college and went on to become computer experts. Bill is extremely proud of one of his students who developed technical devices to assist persons with physical disabilities.

Bill Powell PhotoWhen asked how we can educate and change perceptions about the capabilities of blind workers, Bill said, “There are still misconceptions about what individuals who are blind can and cannot do. It is all a matter of matching individuals up with the right trainers, skills, and technologies. Today, individuals who are blind operate computers, work in manufacturing, and manage people. In schools and in business, we need to help all persons identify their unique talents and vocational opportunities. And, we need to use resources like Bookshare to help them succeed professionally and personally.”

Book Cover of The Goal A Process of Ongoing Improvementby Eliyahu GoldrattTo train workers and help students who are blind or have low vision expand their career opportunities, Bill and his staff download accessible books from Bookshare, including titles about computer programming, technology, finance, and specific training manuals.  Bill recently used these books in some of his workshops:

The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement by Eliyahu Goldratt

Network Your Computers & Devices Step by Step by Ciprian Adrean Rusen

Ubuntu Hacks by Kyle Rankins, Bill Childers and Jonathan Oxer

“I deeply appreciate Bookshare and all programs of this nature for giving me the lifelong treasure of reading,” he said. “The best part of my work is the knowledge that people who did not have much hope of economic success have found work and increased their independence. I recommend membership to all my clients so they will benefit from professional and pleasure reading. We hope our mission at Bosma and my story will help more employers, educators, and advocates take notice of the true capabilities of a person with disabilities and will consider all of the technological advancements that have opened up new vocations for workers like us.”

There is no better time to join Bookshare. For a limited time, new adult members get 33% off an annual subscription, and qualified U.S. students are always free.

Bill talks on video about his life and mission.In 2012, Bill Powell received the 16th Annual Thomas C. Hasbrook Award for his work with the blind community.

Read Bill’s inspirational story and watch a video of his tremendous perseverance and commitment to helping all people experience work and life to the fullest.



Top 100 Picture Books with Image Descriptions Now in Bookshare

2015 November 13

Images and image descriptions provide a full multi-sensory reading experience for young readers.

Where the Wild Things Are.   Make Way for Ducklings.   The Snowy Day.   Corduroy.

These classic books, and the rest of the Top 100 Picture Books, are well-loved tales that have been treasured and shared by grandparents, parents, and children alike. Book cover for Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice SendakTheir engaging stories and heartwarming illustrations bring characters and action to life in a rich, multi-sensory experience for young children. Educators and parents know how important books are for the earliest readers. Getting kids “hooked on books” through that classic bedtime picture book has profound effects on literacy later in life, both from how a child learns to read and how a child perceives herself as being part of the world of books.

Book cover for Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey

Imagine for a moment, however, that you can’t see the illustrations, nor can anyone describe them for you. Your reading and listening experience would certainly be incomplete. The Bookshare team decided to remedy this shortfall so young members could visualize the wild rumpus in Where the Wild Things Are and all the food devoured by The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

In 2014, we embarked on a special project to create a collection of classic picture books containing original illustrations with complete image descriptions. Our list of the Top 100 Picture Books came to us through the School Library Journal, one of the essential sources of information about children’s literature. Book cover for The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack KeatsOf course there are plenty of wonderful books that aren’t on this list, but we knew we’d have a worthwhile collection chosen by a knowledgeable group of school librarians.

Book cover for Corduroy by Don FreemanIt wasn’t a small task to bring all the images in the imaginative formats used by children’s authors into our collection, but we did it. Thanks to the hard work of Benetech’s summer interns, dedicated volunteers, and staff, we successfully described all of the images in these one hundred classic children’s books.

This work gave the team tremendous satisfaction to make the books they loved as children, or books they read to their own children, fully accessible. Favorite characters such as Curious George, Frog and Toad, Harold and his purple crayon, Madeline, and Peter Rabbit are now fully realized and can be enjoyed through images and image descriptions. To get started, browse through the Top 100 Picture Books in Bookshare. Then log in, select a book, get comfortable, and click on Read Now to enjoy one of your favorites in Bookshare Web Reader.


Visually-Impaired Veteran Helps Peers Transition to Civilian and School Life

2015 November 11

“Technology training, leadership empowerment, and accessible books make all the difference,” says Tim Hornik

Photo of Tim Hornik

Tim Hornik

The word “awesome” doesn’t begin to describe the work of Tim Hornik, a retired U.S. Army Captain and chair of TAVVI , the Technology Association for Veterans with Visual Impairments, the technology committee in the Blinded Veterans Association (BVA).

Tim is visually impaired and a long-time Bookshare member. We originally featured his work in 2014, and it’s no surprise that today he remains diligent to help returning veterans make successful transitions to civilian and school life.

In our first blog, Tim was a busy new father. He had just started a Ph.D. program in Therapeutic Sciences at the University of Kansas Medical Center and was exploring educational programming to support disabled veterans in school. Tim’s goal was to develop personalized transition services for hundreds of veterans on his campus. Today, he leads two committees to train and reempower veterans.

The first committee is focused on technology. Tim trains students on the use of smart phones and digital devices, like the iPad. “Technology training and devices, leadership empowerment, and accessible books can make all the difference for returning veterans and is crucial for individuals who are visually impaired,” he says. Tim also develops reference materials and hosts a monthly leadership teleconference for the BVA, relying on Bookshare and peer review journals as source materials.

In the second committee, Operation Peer Support, Tim works with current generation veterans. He recommends Bookshare’s online library as an accessible resource for schoolwork. Membership to Bookshare is free for veterans with qualified print disabilities who attend U.S. schools. Tim likes the varied collection of educational books, technical and professional journals, and periodicals.

In addition to these committees, Tim is developing a training module for student veterans with disabilities for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). This module will help veterans and the VA better understand disablement, how to obtain accommodations and services from universities, and other barriers impinging veterans’ abilities to pursue postsecondary educational objectives.

We asked Tim, “What are you currently reading from the Bookshare library?” One of his classes required three qualitative research textbooks that the university disability office would need to scan. Tim requested the journals from Bookshare and our staff quickly got busy scanning, editing, and adding the titles to the collection. “Bookshare saved me and the university accommodations office time,” he said. “Now the journals are available in the library for other vets and students who are visually impaired to download for free.”

Photo of Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Honorable Robert McDonald, Timothy Hornik, and his guide dog Black Jack

Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Honorable Robert McDonald, with Timothy Hornik and his guide dog Black Jack.

Tim also shared this photo of him with Robert A. McDonald, Secretary of Veterans Affairs, who visited the University of Kansas Medical Center as part of his efforts to promote VA careers and research possibilities. Tim appreciated the opportunity to receive Secretary McDonald’s positive perspective on Senate Bill 2134, Grow Our Own Directive: Physician Assistant Employment and Education Act of 2015, legislation that helps former medics and corpsmen in the U.S. military transition from the service into VA physician assistants.

The team at Bookshare continues to wish Tim the very best of everything and give special thanks to him and all veterans for their extraordinary service to our country.

In recognition of Veterans Day, qualifying veterans and adults can join Bookshare for just $50. That’s $25 off our regular price for new members ($75). That’s a 33% savings!

What do you get with a Bookshare membership?

  • Get unlimited access to Bookshare’s online library of over 370,000 titles.
  • Enjoy bestsellers, new releases, classics, autobiographies, educational books, career books, and more.
  • Read books in audio, large print, and braille.
  • Read on a wide variety of devices, including computers, tablets, smart phones, MP3 players, and assistive technologies.
  • Get free reading tools like Bookshare Web Reader and Go Read.

Get all of this for just $50 today! And if you are a current U.S. student, your membership is free.

Learn more >>


Bookshare and Assistive Technology Help Young Adult Pursue Dreams

2015 November 5
Elina and her mom Karla, and their guide dog, Zoe

Elina and her mom Karla, and their guide dog, Zoe

Elina Hughes has athetoid cerebral palsy which makes it almost impossible for her to hold a book or pencil, yet this disability doesn’t stop her from pursing her dreams, acquiring knowledge, attending college, and creating beautiful works of art using two important resources: Bookshare and assistive technology (AT).

In 2015, Elina and her mom, Karla Hughes, created a video, “Assistive Technology Rocks My Classroom,” to submit to President Obama for the White House Student Film Festival. This amazing mother-daughter duo are on a mission to emphasize the need for more assistive technology in the classroom and to shine a spotlight on the accomplishments a person with severe disabilities can achieve. Watch the video and be inspired as Mrs. Hughes describes her daughter’s progression through elementary and high school and as Elina demonstrates how she uses technology to pursue her creative interests and lifelong dreams.

Elina & Zoe Canine Angel Assistance Team - CopyElina’s World – Reading, Learning, and Art

At age nine, Elina’s family and teachers encouraged her to use assistive technology and conductive education therapy, an innovative teaching and learning approach to reading, writing, communication, and math. Conductive therapy is an educational system specifically developed for children and adults who have motor disorders of neurological origin such as cerebral palsy.

At this time, Mrs. Hughes also signed her daughter up for a Bookshare Individual Membership so that Elina could find accessible books for school and pursue her interest in art.

Original artwork by Bookshare member Elina Hughes of her beloved grandparents.

Original artwork by Elina Hughes of her beloved grandparents.

By age twelve, she was proficient using technology to draw and paint. She won an “All Kids Can Create,” award by the Very Special Arts Kennedy Foundation, an international organization founded by Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith.

In high school, Elina excelled in all subjects, including Spanish. Today, at age eighteen, she attends Citrus Community College in Glendora, California, and plans to study public relations. She also intends to learn to communicate in other languages using assistive technology. Both Elina and her mom are confident that Bookshare will play a continuing role in providing accessible textbooks for her postsecondary studies and artistic outlets.

Elina with Bookshare staffer Ginny Grant and Zoe.

Elina with Bookshare staffer Ginny Grant and Zoe.

Elina reads on an iPad and loves using her iPhone 6 Plus. Using an AT device to communicate, she recently told a Bookshare product manager, Ginny Grant, that she is reading Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer to get inspired for a weekend trip

We wish Elina all the success in the world and thank her and her mom for their continued advocacy on behalf of children and adults with disabilities. With the right resources, everyone can pursue their unique talents and interests and be successful in school and in life.

Bookshare Can Help You Reach Your Goals

Bookshare’s library of over 370,000 digital accessible ebooks can facilitate lifelong learning and help you advance your career, acquire new skills, and expand your professional knowledge. During November we are offering a special discount on adult memberships. Stay tuned for detailed information.


Bookshare Announces 2015 Mentor Teacher Winners

2015 October 31
by Bookshare Team Member
learning to use Bookshare

Teachers training others to use Bookshare.

Bookshare’s Mentor Teacher program supports the world’s top teachers and assistive technology specialists. The program provides training and tools to support educators, parents, and students in the effective use of Bookshare’s online accessible library and reading technologies.  Currently, over 700 educators and specialists have joined the network, and it is because of their efforts that students with print disabilities across the U.S. are getting books in accessible formats that they can read.

As we honor this network, we also want to acknowledge the 2015 Bookshare Mentor Teacher winners. This annual competition is open to all Bookshare Mentor Teachers and requires participants to demonstrate that they conducted teacher, parent, and student trainings throughout the school year.

Our 2015 competition was fierce. Many mentors wrote to us about their extraordinary and inspiring efforts to promote Bookshare and lifelong learning. As you can read in the words of our grand prize winner, Tanna Gallaher, our Mentor Teachers have a passion for engaging students in the joy of reading.

2015 Grand Prize Winner

Head shot of Tanna Gallaher

Tanna Gallaher

Tanna Gallaher, Dyslexia Specialist
Raymond E. Curtis Elementary School, Weatherford, TX

Tanna’s motto is READ, READ, READ!  This dyslexia specialist helps students reach and exceed their academic goals and encourages good reading habits to support lifelong learning.

Tanna loves to collaborate with parents, teachers, and administrators to share instructional practices that meet every student’s specific reading needs. She advocates for independent reading at home on reading level and says, “It is important that students are able to choose what they are interested in to read—whether it is fiction, nonfiction, magazines, websites, or other reading materials. I also encourage parents to discuss with their child what he or she is reading and to ask questions often.”

Tanna’s school, Raymond E. Curtis Elementary, is the largest elementary school in Weatherford, Texas, with just over 700 students. She meets with students throughout the school year and talks with their parents before and after annual 504 meetings to help them learn more about Bookshare. She informs new students about the online library and encourages them to sign up for Individual Memberships. Today, 80 percent of her students successfully use technology for independent reading. She says, “I’ve shared my passion for Bookshare with the dyslexia therapists at six elementary schools and three secondary campuses in the district, and I will continue to promote the accessible library.”

Way to go Ms. Gallaher! Thank you for being a Bookshare Mentor Teacher, and we hope you enjoy your prize of a new iPad 2.

More Bookshare Mentor Teacher Winners

Runners-up who received Android tablets:

  • Kevin Hollinger, Francis Howell School District, MO
  • Teresa George, Chino School District, CA

Winners of $25 iTunes gift cards:

  • Michelle Thomas, Adams 12 Five Star Schools, CO
  • Sallie Spencer, Olivet Community Schools and College, MI
  • Vicki Therrien, School Administrative Unit #53, NH
  • Tammy Bryant, AE Butler Intermediate School, TX
  • David Cohen, NYC Department of Education, NY

Winners of $15 Amazon gift cards:

  • Jennifer Brown, Ramona Unified SD, CA
  • Julie Freed/Amanda Miller, Grant Wood Area Education Agency, IA
  • Theresa Brousseau, North Syracuse Central Schools, NY
  • Kathy Foote, Ionia Intermediate SD, MI
  • Karrie Pharris, Henderson Elementary/Forney ISD, TX
  • Ann Curran, Vanguard School, PA
  • Norma Whitaker, Great Prairie Area Education Agency, IA
  • Suzanne Loftus, Chancellor Center Council Rock SD, PA

Let’s Promote Lifelong Learning and Reading Together

Thank you to the more than 700 educators who go the extra mile to train colleagues and promote lifelong reading, and congratulations to our 2015 winners! We invite any educator or specialist in the U.S. to find out more about the Bookshare Mentor Teacher program and to tap into these beneficial training resources that will make you a rock star Bookshare educator.




Living with Dyslexia – Changing the Future Together

2015 October 27

This month, we are raising awareness about dyslexia and the myths surrounding people with this language-based learning disability that affects word recognition, spelling, and reading.

Brain research says that with the right resources and accommodations, like accessible books and reading technologies, people with dyslexia can break through reading barriers, live incredible lives and reach immeasurable goals. So today, we want to shine a spotlight on some of our own Bookshare members and their reflections of living and learning with dyslexia. These members, and many like them, are strong advocates of people with dyslexia and learning disabilities. We hope their inspiring stories will encourage you to help change the future for tens of thousands of children and adults.

Teacher Raises Children’s Hopes and Dreams

Photo of Cathy Wilson

Cathy Wilson

Every day, Cathy Wilson, a Texas dyslexia specialist, raises the bar to help children with print disabilities succeed as readers. Ms. Wilson encourages educators and parents to introduce children to accessible books and technology early to help them be more independent. “Technology is a great equalizer,” she says. “Children with dyslexia are less constrained by labels from their reading disabilities.”



Young People Advocate for Quality Reading Resources and Technologies in Schools

Reagan Reeves

Reagan Reeves

Reagan Reeves, an eighth grader, who has read 200 digital accessible books, is proud of the awards he has received for the most Accelerated Reader points in his class. Reagan encourages people with dyslexia to “embrace educational resources that support their reading challenges.”

Lily Prest and Rosie

Lily Prest and Rosie

Lily Prest read her first chapter book in just five days!  “What a difference,” says her mom, Jessica. “Daily reading is no longer such a struggle. Ebooks enabled Lily to read and reread the story. It reinforced her ability to understand what she reads. Now, she loves to read and we want to tell everyone about it.”


Kathy Stratton and her son and daughter

Brian Meersma with family.


Two super bright teens, Brian Meersma and Ben Cooper, travel the U.S., even speaking to Congress, as proponents for resources and technologies on behalf of people with dyslexia.


Ben giving a demonstration to teachers.

Ben Cooper giving a technology demonstration to Texas Education Agency staff.

What incredible zeal these Bookshare members have! We have little doubt that these young people are all destined to reach new heights. Let’s share their inspiring stories and use the resources below to spark new discussions about dyslexia on social media and in your community.

Resources to Share

Book Cover Thinking Differently, an Inspiring guide for Parents of Children with Learning Disabilties by David Fink

The Bookshare collection includes practical strategies for teaching self-empowerment and helping children identify their strengths.

Thanks for being an advocate and changing the future with us.

Beyond the Dys in Dyslexia

2015 October 22
by Bookshare Communications

In recognition of Dyslexia Awareness month in October, we are reposting a blog by McKenzie Erickson, Marketing Coordinator at Benetech, which originally appeared in the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services Blog (U.S. Department of Special Education) on October 5.

Dyslexia. It’s a word I’ve heard since the third grade. It was the explanation for why I couldn’t read, why I had to Headshot of McKenzie Erickson, Marketing Coordinator at Benetechcheat on my weekly spelling tests, and why I felt different. I’ve since come to realize there is more to dyslexia than its disadvantages.

When I was in school, I put a significant amount of energy into keeping my dyslexia a secret. I didn’t want anyone to know that I was in special education, or that I had a tutor for nine years, or that my parents read my advanced placement (AP) textbooks to me. I worked hard to make sure I had the perfect grades and the perfect resumé to get into the perfect college. I overcompensated by working three times as hard as my peers. I was student body president in my senior year while being involved in multiple extracurricular activities. I needed to make sure people saw me as smart and competent.

After graduating high school and taking some time to reflect on what I really needed, I made the decision to attend Landmark College. It was there, among hundreds of other students with learning disabilities and attention issues that I began to define who I am. I found helpful resources like the National Center for Learning Disabilities and learned more about disability laws and my right to accommodations. I developed skills to advocate for what I needed to be successful. Learning differently is what all students at Landmark College have in common. It was time to discover who I am beyond my dyslexia.
Poster defining dyslexia, listing ways to make a classroom dyslexia-friendly, and describing symptoms of dyslexia at different ages

My associate degree from Landmark College prepared me to attend the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. I began to focus on knowing and understanding exactly what I have to offer and what energizes me. I opened myself to the possibility that my strengths were not in spite of my dyslexia, but because of it. I honed my skills by studying branding, creative and critical thinking, and human-centered design. As a capstone I interned at Benetech.

I just celebrated my three-year anniversary at Benetech. I’m proud to put my design and marketing degree to use contributing to Bookshare, a global literacy initiative at Benetech. Bookshare is an online library of over 350,000 accessible ebooks for people with print disabilities like dyslexia. By continuing to develop my strengths and identifying ways to compensate for my challenges I’m crafting my ideal career.

This October, Dyslexia Awareness Month, I encourage all teachers to consider which of their students might have dyslexia. Notice how bright they are and how hard they are working. Help them to identify and celebrate their interests and strengths. Understand that these students are constantly confronting their major weaknesses—reading and writing. And thank you in advance for seeking out the necessary professional development to provide effective evidence-based interventions.

For parents of children who are struggling with dyslexia or other learning and attention issues, I want you to know that there are resources and communities of support available to you. Whether in your local community or on websites like Understood and Dyslexic Advantage, there are experts who can provide information to help you make decisions and navigate this journey, and there are parents who understand the challenges you face and will share their stories.

I urge all students with learning disabilities to pursue activities that you enjoy. Believe in your ability to learn. Use your voice to increase awareness and understanding of the whole of dyslexia. Help to shift the paradigm from disadvantages to advantages. Find your strength and focus on making it into your superpower.

McKenzie Erickson is responsible for the design and execution of Bookshare marketing campaigns including branding, collateral, events, and member outreach.

Special Guest Post – VA Educator Shares Sensory Teaching Ideas for Students with Dyslexia

2015 October 15
by Bookshare Team Member

Jennifer Cassese Appleton

October is a time to rally with our partners and advocates to raise awareness of dyslexia and learning disabilities. That’s why we’re sharing a valuable post on blended learning written by Virginia Educator and dyslexia teacher, Jennifer Cassese Appleton. This post was originally featured on the AIM-VA blog. Kudos to Ms. Appleton and to our partner, AIM-VA, for shining the spotlight on learning disabilities like dyslexia and sharing important information and resources. Special thanks also to the AIM-VA staff and editor, June Behrman.


The Art of Blended Learning in Reading Classes

Jennifer Cassese Appleton is a master at the art of blending multi-sensory learning in her reading classes. As a former reading specialist for Virginia’s Alternative Paths Training School and Marshall High School (Fairfax County) and a parent of four children, including a son with dyslexia, she’s had much opportunity to develop her craft. Appleton, now a private academic therapist for adolescents with dyslexia, sets high expectations for the students she teaches. Here are a few of her sensory learning best practices using Bookshare.

Appleton says, “I want all learners to enjoy an engaging reading experience, no matter their learning or print disability. I’ve used Bookshare throughout my teaching career and it is an excellent resource. The online library and accessible books definitely have a place in the curriculum for supplemental reading and core academics.”

The students Appleton teaches today are extremely bright, but their reading comprehension and reading level have them at a disadvantage. Dyslexia involves difficulty in learning to read or interpret words, letters, and symbols, but does not affect general intelligence. According to the latest statistics one in five students in the U.S. has a brain-based learning and attention issue related to reading, writing, math, and organization. That number translates into 2.9 million children who have a specific learning disability.

The National Center for Learning Disabilities reports one of every 10 students in the U.S. is dyslexic, and eighty percent are placed in special education. Appleton says, “Individuals with dyslexia and learning disabilities require a multi-sensory reading experience to make contextual connections and learning engagement more ‘sticky.’”

Multi-sensory reading, the act of seeing and hearing words read aloud, reinforces understanding and comprehension in individuals with learning disabilities. Bookshare today serves over 360,000 members with print disabilities, such as dyslexia, with more than 367,000 accessible titles. Bookshare also partners with AIM-VA to strengthen the reach of students in Virginia and their teachers who can benefit from the resource.

Make Reading Come Alive!  

Appleton, a former Bookshare Mentor Teacher, shares these creative ideas to make reading come alive through accessible books.

  • Pair literature. “When you pair good literature with a sensory experience, you create positive memories in the reader,” she says. “You inspire curiosity and hold their attention.” This creative teacher even uses scented markers to help her students recall and write about what they read.
  • Encourage students to have an Individual Membership.External Link to Individual Membership (New Window) so they can use the online accessible library day or night on the device of their choosing. “Bookshare has lots of academic titles, plus periodicals to keep students with print disabilities interested in current events.”
  • Integrate companion learning projects. “Combine cultural interests and activities into reading assignments involving art, music, cooking, or any hands-on creative topic. This will further foster your students’ love of reading!”

In one classroom, Appleton had students download the book From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E. L. Konigsburg from Bookshare. The story is about two kids who run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) in New York and are inspired by an Egyptian bronze cat. Students read the book, then sculpted cats out of clay. “My ninth and tenth graders loved the project!”

For younger children with learning disabilities, Appleton taps into Bookshare for pleasure reading. For older students, she assigns accessible textbooks, research materials and periodicals.

Teamwork is the name of the game when it comes to supporting students with print disabilities!

Check out this article about Bookshare parents and teachers teaming up for back-to-school success for more students with dyslexia and learning disabilities.


Missouri Educator Underscores Value of Student Logins and Individual Memberships

2015 October 8
by Bookshare Communications

Catherine Fortney headshotCatherine Fortney, an Occupational Therapist and Assistive Technology Facilitator at the Francis Howell School District in St. Charles, Missouri, says her Bookshare student members love Individual Memberships and Student Logins—a new feature that lets students log in on their own and read assigned books wherever they want.

Students’ Reading Transformations

Fortney also likes to share stories of transformation with colleagues, administrators, and parents. “Transformative stories fortify the value of Bookshare,” she says. “The online accessible library is a game changer in special education, especially for students with learning, vision, and physical disabilities, such as muscular dystrophy.”

Gabby, a high school student with a learning disability, transformed into an independent reader after learning how to read with Bookshare using her Individual Membership login. “She was so excited that she could actually go home and read books on her own,” says Fortney. “Reading independence happens more frequently when students use Bookshare to its fullest advantage.”

Jonathan, now a junior in high school, began using Bookshare in middle school. At that time, he was reading at a second grade level, but could comprehend materials on grade level if they were read aloud. Today, he is on track academically and reading independently. He aspires to attend college and pursue a medical career—a field Fortney says is “well within his reach.”

Technology, Training, and Communication

Fortney, an 18-year veteran of the educational system, learned about Bookshare when searching for reading solutions at a Closing the Gap conference a number of years ago. Initially, her district set up several training sessions to ensure that all students who qualify for Bookshare receive the opportunity. Fortney’s district then took it to the next level by also emphasizing continual Bookshare training. Last year, it received a state grant to purchase iPads and apps, and Bookshare became a valuable resource for core academic and supplemental reading.

“We encouraged high school teachers to participate first so that older students who qualified were signed up for Bookshare Individual Memberships,” says Fortney. “Students are smart and technologically savvy; we only had to show them once how to download books and they got it! Our district is thankful for Bookshare and all the new features that make the online library effective. Today, many more accessible books are available and our district has developed an effective system to manage the resource. Through the accessible library, so many more students with print disabilities can become independent and effective readers. I just love it!”

About the Bookshare Mentor Teacher Program

Catherine Fortney is a Bookshare Mentor Teacher. This program supports the world’s top teachers and assistive technology specialists. It provides training tools to engage educators, parents, and students in the effective use of Bookshare’s online accessible library and reading technologies. Over 700 educators and specialists work in their local communities and schools to advocate on behalf of students with print disabilities. Bookshare Mentor Teachers also develop and share best practices with other teachers around the globe.