Unexpected blindness prompted life and career reinvention
It is not uncommon for adults in mid-life to reinvent themselves for another career. Some just want to pursue a new field or industry. Others are forced to make a career change due to a layoff or an evolving marketplace. For Jonathan Perry, resident of Athens, Georgia, and a successful pharmacist for over twenty-five years, his life screeched to a halt one day in April, 2012. After celebrating his son’s wedding, a bout of endocarditis – a bacterial infection of the heart valve – sent endotoxins into his body, brain, and retinas. The infection triggered a stroke, and overnight he became blind.
Open-heart surgery repaired the valve, and then he began a year of antibiotics, rehabilitation, mobility training, and assistive technology instruction. Jonathan approached this challenge the way any good scientist would: logically and methodically. He started working with a computer trainer who showed him how to use JAWS, a popular Windows screen reader. An avid reader, he downloaded some books using the National Library Service’s BARD, a free library of recorded and braille books and magazines for individuals with visual and physical disabilities. That was a good source of pleasure reading materials, but Jonathan had bigger plans. He was determined to retrain himself for a new vocation.
From pharmacy administration to trend analysis
With Ph.D.-level coursework in pharmacy administration, he could leverage his business management knowledge and apply it to the field of financial trend analysis. “My goal was to analyze companies’ stock performance with help from a computer, and you don’t have to be sighted for that.”
Jonathan read several blogs for the blind community that mentioned Bookshare, so he decided to check it out. He was skeptical that Bookshare would have the highly specialized books he was looking for. He noticed that you can search for books without being a member, so he searched for The Intelligent Investor, the stock market bible by Ben Graham, originally published in 1949. Jonathan was certain the search would come up empty. “Darn it if y’all didn’t have it!” he exclaimed. He searched for more books about trend analysis, and Bookshare had at least ten of them. “What a collection! The breadth is overwhelming. It’s light years ahead of anything I’ve found.” Jonathan became a Bookshare member on the spot.
A variety of reading tools and devices to choose from
When it comes to reading tools and devices, Jonathan says his choice depends on what he is reading and what kind of mood he is in. His favorite reading tools are Voice Dream Reader, Capti Narrator, and Bookshare Web Reader when he wants to read right from a browser. He uses a PC, iPhone, and a DAISY reader which gives him a lot of flexibility and options. He is comfortable with the computer-generated voices and appreciates the ability to increase the speed of the narration. He hasn’t found a need to learn braille because there is so much available digitally. Bookshare alone has over 500,000 books in its collection.
Words of wisdom
What advice does Jonathan have for others who are blind or visually impaired and want to retrain themselves? “Most people have a set of skills that are valuable and can be expanded further,” he suggests. “There is a treasure trove of information and how-to books in Bookshare that can help. Blindness slows things down tenfold, but it doesn’t stop you.” Jonathan continues, “I hope that my story is inspiring for others with disabilities, especially blindness. Bookshare is the only source for many of the books that are highly specialized in the new field I am pursuing. I was simply amazed to see the depth and quality of materials that are available.”
What does Jonathan read for fun? “I like to read bestsellers or whatever people are talking about so I can join the conversation. I also enjoy nonfiction, biographies, short stories, and personal development books like Getting to Yes.” Come to think of it, that sums up Jonathan’s attitude and journey of self-reinvention, and we can all take a page out of that book.
On Jonathan’s digital bookshelf:
The Intelligent Investor, by Benjamin Graham
Trend Following with Managed Futures, by Alex Greyserman and Kathryn Kaminski
An Introduction to Algorithmic Trading, by Jane Cralle and Edward Leshik
Getting to Yes, by Bruce Patton, Roger Fisher, and William L. Ury
Special thanks to Dr. P. Travis Harker and his daughter, Paloma, for sharing their story.
“I Won’t Read Again!”
In fourth grade, Paloma Harker declared to her parents, “I am done with reading. You can’t make me do it!” Since her earliest days in school, Paloma had trouble
decoding and comprehending printed words. She loved stories and listened attentively as her father read to her, but reading on her own was difficult. By third grade, she knew that she did not read at the same level as her classmates. Each time she tried, she experienced frustration. By age nine, she was ready to quit reading for good.
Hearing this declaration saddened her father, Travis. Why was his daughter having so much trouble reading? As a family doctor in New Hampshire, he wanted a remedy, but did not have one. “I kept asking Paloma to try harder, but that wasn’t the solution,” he said.
Dr. Harker’s medical training did not include methods for diagnosing a reading disability. He and his wife worked closely with Paloma’s teachers to address her reading challenges. Paloma tried everything — working with a tutor, receiving extra time on tasks, performing repetitive word drills – but nothing helped. Travis took her to the Developmental Medicine Center at Boston Children’s Hospital. That visit led to a discovery: Paloma had a learning disability called dyslexia. Even though she was very bright, her brain processed information differently. With a clear diagnosis, Dr. Harker looked for resources to help her.
Accessible Ebooks Were a Breakthrough
“I found Bookshare, the online library of accessible ebooks that is free for U.S. schools and students with dyslexia and other qualifying print disabilities,” he said. Those include blindness, low vision, a physical disability, or learning disabilities.
Paloma signed up for a free individual membership so she could download books. She now reads books on her iPad with an app called Voice Dream Reader that allows her to listen to text-to-speech narration while following the highlighted text. Her father noticed an immediate improvement. Bookshare plus specialized instruction was the breakthrough Paloma needed to welcome reading back into her daily life.
Signs of Reading Disabilities
After observing his daughter’s success with accessible ebooks, Dr. Harker wanted to learn more about the research on dyslexia. He recalls one study suggesting that seventy percent of children with dyslexia are incorrectly labeled with low intelligence and Attention Deficit Disorder or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder simply because they have difficulty reading.
“When it comes to learning and attention issues, working smarter is often better than working harder,” he said. “If I had known this, Paloma’s early years would have been more enjoyable and our relationship less strained.”
Now, Dr. Harker knows that the signs of a reading disability can often be mislabeled as bad behavior or low intelligence. Additionally, some children may try to disguise their reading difficulty and keep it hidden. He said, “We all need a better understanding of dyslexia. This begins with specific observations.”
In his practice, Dr. Harker encourages patients, teachers, and parents to dive deeper into a child’s behavior and reading challenges before drawing conclusions. “I ask parents to be very specific when describing their child’s struggles,” he says. “This will help us to pinpoint a diagnosis and determine applicable accommodations, like accessible ebooks. Thankfully, our daughter is now being taught in a way that works best for her learning style and using Bookshare has helped.” Paloma attends the Carroll School in Lincoln, Massachusetts, that specializes in teaching students with dyslexia. She reads independently and is confident and happy. She even likes to read for fun.
How Can You Advocate for More Education About Dyslexia and Accessible Ebooks in Schools?
Dr. Harker recently joined Bookshare advocates at his New Hampshire U.S. Senator’s office. They discussed the need for more education about dyslexia and for more access to ebooks in schools. “I am lending my support for continued federal funding for Bookshare,” he says. “I am grateful for the resource and want to be a better champion for children with reading challenges. Every child deserves to be recognized for their true learning potential, and with the right solutions they can enjoy a bright future ahead, just as my daughter now has.”
Travis Harker, M.D., serves as the Chief Medical Officer for Granite Health. A faculty member of the New Hampshire Dartmouth Family Medicine and Leadership Preventive Medicine Residency programs, he was named Family Physician of the Year in 2014 by the New Hampshire Academy of Family Physicians. He also writes an “Expert Corner” blog about learning and attention issues for Understood.
Are you going to the 2017 ATIA Conference in Orlando (January 18-21)?
We invite you to visit us in the Benetech/Bookshare booth (#419) and attend our presentations. Come see how to get easy access to over 500,000 ebooks in alternative formats for students who cannot read or process printed text.
Here’s a preview of what you will learn:
New Bookshare Features
- We’ve made Bookshare faster and easier with new features like Assign & Read, Student Logins, shared Reading Lists and more.
- Experience Bookshare books being read on a wide range of devices with partner demos including Capti Narrator, HumanWare BrailleNote Touch, TextHelp Read&Write for Google + Bookshare Web Reader, and Dolphin EasyReader
- Check out the most up-to-date demo schedule before you arrive
Accessible Educational Materials
- Get tips on how to purchase materials or create coursework that is accessible to students with disabilities.
Presentations by our expert staff on Thursday, January 19:
- RSCH-15: Ignite Research (Panel) with Lisa Wadors Verne – 11:45 am-12:45 pm in Caribbean V
- ACC-06: Choose Carefully: Select and Create eBooks for All Readers by Lisa Wadors Verne – 1:00-2:00 pm in Bonaire 8
- EDU-60: You Try it! Cool Tools for People with Reading Barriers by Christine Jones – 4:30-5:30 pm in Bonaire 1
We look forward to connecting with you at ATIA!
Benetech accelerates toward a future in which all digital content is Born Accessible
By Brad Turner, VP Global Literacy, Benetech
On November 29, 2016, Bookshare hit a momentous milestone when it passed the mark of 500,000 titles in its collection. That means that people unable to read standard print now have access to 500,000 ebooks in various formats to suit their individual needs.
It wasn’t that long ago that the blind community had to rely on braille, a limited number of human-narrated books, or having someone read to them if they wanted to enjoy a book. Even just 15 years ago, Bookshare had a modest collection of 20,000 books. Fast forward to today where Bookshare boasts over 509,000 titles, has partnerships with over 800 publishers, and adds over 5,000 new titles each month. Not only are we building up the collection, we’re expanding Bookshare’s reach by partnering with organizations and communities around the globe to ensure all individuals, regardless of where they live, have access to literacy. Members around the world can now access books in 30 languages in over 70 countries.
The Future is Born Accessible
The most exciting part of this momentum is that we’ve only just begun! The path forward is clear: 500,000 accessible ebooks today, one million accessible ebooks tomorrow, and ultimately a world where all books are made accessible from the moment they are created.
Serving more members with more books is a critical part of our mission. That is why our ultimate goal is a Born Accessible future. If a book is born digital, it should be born accessible, period. Every member of society, including the estimated 5% of the population who have difficulty reading traditional print, should have equal access to books as soon as they are published. Benetech will not rest until a Born Accessible future is a reality, and we will continue to work with publishers and the larger accessibility community to achieve this goal.
Meanwhile, we are encouraging U.S. school districts to use their purchasing power to buy accessible to increase the demand for accessible textbooks and curriculum materials that work for all students. When school districts across the country demand Born Accessible materials, publishers will recognize the importance of accessibility. Benetech is dedicated to working with school districts to request accessible materials so publishers respond with the content that schools need.
Collaboration Achieves Scale
I am challenging our community of mentor teachers, parent ambassadors, seniors, librarians, and disability rights advocates to continue to demand equal access to literacy for people who can’t read standard print. To that end, we are collaborating with key public libraries in New York, Pennsylvania, and Georgia, and establishing partnerships with nonprofits such as the Royal National Institute for the Blind in the United Kingdom, The Lighthouse Guild in New York, and All Children Reading in India.
When we leverage our collective strengths, we can scale more efficiently and achieve better results for more people. We are at a tipping point, and I invite you to join us on this momentous journey.
Half a Million and Counting
The Best Bear in All the World – a celebration of the 90th anniversary of Winnie-the-Pooh with new stories commissioned by the Trustees of the Pooh Properties. Available in the U.S. and Canada.
The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics – the #1 New York Times bestseller and inspiration for the PBS documentary “The Boys of ’36.” Published by Penguin Random House and available in the U.S., Canada, and many other countries.
By Christine Jones, Senior Education Program Manager, Global Literacy Program, Benetech
Early in 2016, Benetech began a concerted effort to learn even more about how schools are providing services to students who experience barriers to reading printed text and how Bookshare can work more seamlessly in these diverse environments. We decided to go “under the hood” by partnering with some of the nation’s largest and most under-resourced school districts. To date, we have met with key team members at more than thirty districts and have learned a great deal about their needs and challenges, as well as how Bookshare can help.
Our key takeaway from these meetings has been the need to make Bookshare even easier to implement and to provide simpler and more detailed guidance on how to use Bookshare. As a result, we have made some significant product improvements in the past year.
Teachers can now:
- Give students their own logins* so they can easily access assigned books and read independently.
- Assign books to students as they sign them up for Bookshare.*
- Build Reading Lists and share them with other teachers in their organization.
- See when students have downloaded assigned books, which is informative in parent meetings, and the Primary Contact on an account can print a student download report for administrative purposes.
Students can now:
- Easily access and read assigned books on tablets, computers, MP3 players, Braille devices, and other assistive technology devices.
Bookshare Champions Facilitate Adoption
We also learned more about the unique challenges that large districts face and how differently these are addressed from district to district. For example, facilitating pervasive use of a valuable resource such as Bookshare is a daunting task given the sheer numbers of campuses, teachers, and students. We observed that district-level Bookshare champions are key to widespread adoption of the online library. Some districts already have effective systems in place to ensure that many teachers have easy access to Bookshare, while others are working at integrating Bookshare into their student curriculum. Recognizing how Bookshare can help both their teachers and students, other districts arranged for us to meet with and/or train their staff. As a result, we expect to see more qualified students in those districts enjoying more accessible ebooks from Bookshare in the coming months.
Albuquerque Public Schools Set the Bar High
One district that stands out is Albuquerque Public Schools (APS). Nearly 90% of the 161 schools have Bookshare accounts, which is the highest percentage of all the districts we studied this year. In addition, approximately 75% of the APS students who qualify for Bookshare are currently signed up for the service. However, as APS staff can attest, getting schools and students signed up for Bookshare is just the beginning. The district-level assistive technology (AT) team provides Bookshare training to the various campuses on an ongoing basis to ensure that students get the accessible materials they need.
We plan to visit more districts this year, and we look forward to learning even more about how we can better support teachers across the country who are working so diligently to help students with print disabilities to succeed.
Do you know of a school or school district whose students would benefit from Bookshare?
The goal of Benetech’s Bookshare initiative is to make reading accessible to everyone. Bookshare is the world’s largest accessible online library that serves over 400,000 members with print disabilities. In September, Bookshare reached a significant milestone when it delivered the ten millionth book downloaded. That’s an awful lot of accessible ebooks making reading possible for individuals with blindness, low vision, a physical disability, or a learning disability like dyslexia.
Another way we are bringing the benefits of Bookshare to a wider audience is through partnerships with public libraries. Libraries in New York, Georgia, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia now offer free Bookshare memberships to patrons who qualify, and we are actively pursuing additional libraries.
Bookshare’s membership extends well beyond the U.S. border. Thanks to a Google Impact Challenge award in April, the team is implementing Bookshare and conducting teacher training in India and other underserved countries. The project includes adding local language books in accessible formats to help individuals with disabilities overcome barriers to reading. Bookshare now has books in twenty-five languages and members in over seventy countries.
Throughout 2016, the Bookshare blog shared stories about students and adults whose lives have been changed by Bookshare as well as teachers and administrators who brought Bookshare to their schools. The blog also highlighted books from the incredibly vast collection of fiction, nonfiction, textbooks, children’s literature, vocational manuals, bestsellers, newspapers, and much more. Take a look at some of the highlights below:
Bookshare members and advocates share the joy of reading
- Robert Lewis, a Bookshare member and Executive Director of the Maryland School for the Blind’s Radio Reading Network
- Seth Gast, an accomplished boy scout with dyslexia who loves animals and nature
- Debbie Campbell, a parent advocate who dispels myths surrounding ebooks
- Philippe Ernewein and Anthony Slaughter, school administrators who implemented Bookshare throughout the entire Denver Academy
- Bill Powell, a Bookshare member who helps adults with visual impairments receive vocational training
Bookshare salutes teacher heroes
- Texas Specialist Finds Successful Reading Strategies to Teach Students with Dyslexia
- Can Accessible Ebooks Be the Pathway to Reading Comprehension and Summer Fun?
- AT Specialist’s Goal: Universal Right to Reading Independence
- Getting Ready for the Outside World: Bookshare Supports School’s Vocational Program
Bookshare adds new features to improve usability
- Bookshare’s Go Read App for Android Makes Accessible Reading Easier Than Ever
- Assign and Read: Getting Bookshare Books is Easier Than Ever
- Get On Board with Unified English Braille
Bookshare’s collection has titles for all interests and ages
- 2016 Man Booker Prize Winner
- Bookshare Takes You to Hallowed Ground for Black History Month
- Bookshare Has the Books for Teen Read Week
Thank you, Bookshare champions
To all of the Bookshare members, educators, parents, volunteers, and advocates, we appreciate all the work you do to make accessible reading a commonplace experience to enrich the lives of people with print disabilities.
We invite you to connect and engage with the Bookshare community now and in 2017 by:
- Subscribing to the Bookshare blog using the field in the upper right corner
- Following Bookshare on social media using the icons below
- Becoming a parent ambassador or mentor teacher
Warmest wishes for a happy holiday season from all of us at Benetech.
Bookshare has a wealth of titles for pleasure reading, cooking, crafting, and celebrating holiday traditions.
The holiday season is full of joy and wonderment, especially when you explore new ways to make the season bright. Think back to baking or smelling a warm pie fresh from the oven, making a homemade gift, or hearing a child’s laughter reading a favorite bedtime story. Books about these holiday-themed activities and many more can be found in the Bookshare library. The collections team has chosen a variety of books that appeal to all ages and interests. Here are a few favorites for you to discover and enjoy.
Fun and Traditional Reads for All Ages
The Book of (Holiday) Awesome (family nonfiction, self-help, humor)
From Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa, to other holidays such as Mother’s Day and Thanksgiving, this book will show you why holidays are…awesome.
Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival (family nonfiction, nature)
From flying squirrels to grizzly bears and from torpid turtles to insects with antifreeze, the animal kingdom relies on some staggering evolutionary innovations to survive winter.
The Story of the Nutcracker (family literature, fantasy, fiction)
Delightful tale of a little girl’s love for an enchanted nutcracker.
The Twelve Days of Dash & Lily (teen fiction)
Life-affirming romance and New York Times bestseller.
We Are What We Celebrate (family nonfiction, social studies)
Why do we exchange presents? What do bunnies have to do with Easter? How did Earth Day become global?
Oliver the Cat Who Saved Christmas: The Tale of a Little Cat with a Big Heart (children’s fiction)
A Christmas book perfect for fans of A Street Cat Named Bob.
Romance, History and Cultural Traditions
Dreidels on the Brain (children’s fiction)
This very funny, very touching novel of growing up Jewish has the makings of a holiday classic.
Favorite Christmas Poems (nonfiction, all ages)
Heartwarming poems, including “The Night Before Christmas,” highlight this festive compilation of yuletide verse to enchant readers of all ages.
Christmas in Paris: A Novel (adult fiction)
Heartwarming story about love, trust, and self-discovery during a magical time of the year with glorious foods and fashions.
The Man Who Invented Christmas (adult nonfiction)
Secrets in the Snow: A Novel of Intrigue and Romance (teen/young adult fiction)
Jane Austen’s family is eager to secure her future, but Jane is much more interested in writing novels and finds every suitor lacking–until a mysterious gentleman arrives.
Do It Yourself (DIY) Crafts
How to Make Christmas Wreaths and Garlands (all ages)
A collection of wreath and garland projects to make the festive period even more special.
Washi Tape Christmas (all ages)
Thirty simple craft projects with a range of festive patterns.
A collection of more than 150 creative, convenient, and seasonal kosher dishes.
As many as 125 easy and delicious meals designed with minimum prep time.
Celebrate the beauty and charm of the holidays with recipes for traditional food and drink, decorating ideas, and heartwarming stories of snow, pine forests, and sleigh rides.
Share the Love
Reading can open new worlds and wake up inner passions.
If you didn’t find a book to pique your curiosity or strum at your heartstrings, Bookshare has hundreds of thousands of titles to choose from. Try the Advanced Search option to explore new categories and sweeten the season for you or a loved one.
You may also like this blog, “Share the Bookshare Love with your Aging Family and Friends,” written by Deanna McCusker, Head of UX at Benetech, about her mother, Carol Auxer, who enjoys reading with Bookshare in spite of her macular degeneration.
Many thanks to Kathy Swartz, Bookshare Operations Administrator and Librarian, for her invaluable help selecting these wonderful holiday titles.
How you can help us extend Bookshare federal funding
By Jim Fruchterman, Founder and CEO, Benetech
As you may have heard or seen, the federal government funding from the Department of Education that includes Bookshare is in danger. Benetech and the entire Bookshare community have been hard at work resolving this issue in a variety of ways, from field visits to congressional offices in key districts and states to a letter-writing campaign to representatives and senators.
Thousands of students, parents, teachers, and supporters around the country have contacted their representatives letting them know how critical Bookshare is to students with print disabilities. Those efforts are making a difference and your voices are being heard. We were in Washington recently, and we heard from many key Republican and Democratic staffers how they had heard from Bookshare fans and that it made a big difference in their funding decisions!
On behalf of Benetech and Bookshare, we cannot say thank you enough for the support so far. But we need to keep it going. We know many of you have helped out, and we hope many more will continue the effort. We thought it would be helpful to provide an update on where things are as well as the approach we are taking given some of the recent changes in Washington, D.C.
Let’s start with some background. First, be assured that Bookshare has federal funding through September, 2017. The crisis at hand involves the budget year that begins on October 1, 2017. Last summer, the House of Representatives proposed a spending bill that would drastically cut funding for the program from which Bookshare receives its support. They were not targeting Bookshare specifically; instead, our funding was affected by a much larger strategy of redirecting the funding to different areas. The Senate, on the other hand, proposed a bill that would keep the funding at the same level that it was in the 2016 fiscal year.
So where are we now? Initial indications were that the House and Senate would come together prior to the end of this year to negotiate a final spending package for the 2017 fiscal year. Instead, it is now expected that there will be a short-term spending bill, also known as a Continuing Resolution, that funds the government at current budget levels through March 31, 2017, halfway through the current budget year.
As a result, we will continue our outreach and congressional efforts, and we are now tailoring the activities and timing to ramp up in February and March. We’ll need your help at the right moment for maximum impact on this critical funding decision. Please sign up online as a Bookshare supporter. We’ll ask what you are willing to do to pitch in, which could range from making a phone call, sending an email, or visiting your representatives in late winter or early spring.
As you probably know, this appeal for help is incredibly rare for us at Benetech, the nonprofit that operates Bookshare. We wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t critically important to Bookshare’s continued viability. Members of Congress prioritize programs that their constituents tell them are important, and your support could mean the difference between Bookshare continuing to help those with print disabilities or no longer being able to do so.
Thank you to everyone who has jumped in to support Bookshare to date; we’ve had a terrific response so far. Your help is very much appreciated by the Benetech and Bookshare team and our over 400,000 student members!
Our best wishes to all for the coming holiday season.
By guest author Deanna McCusker, Head of User Experience, Benetech
My mom, Carol, and I have always shared a love of reading, often suggesting books to one another that we enjoyed. When I would visit, she would often leave paperbacks on the dresser for me to take home. I didn’t always read them immediately; I’m a busy professional and besides, how interesting could a story about a World War II nurse going back in time to 18th century Scotland be?
When I finally picked it up, I couldn’t put it down. I realized Outlander was actually a series, and Mom and I have read and discussed each new book as it came out. The ninth book has yet to be published, but when it’s announced, Mom will be the first to download it from Bookshare.
When we began this literary journey, Mom was in perfect health. A few years back, however, she began to suffer from macular degeneration. To her extreme frustration, she also started to lose her hearing. She is otherwise still a young seventy-four-year-old.
This change in health has impacted her life (and mine) in a number of ways. She still drives, but not at night and knows the day is coming when she will have to stop altogether. She used to listen to books on tape while driving or working on her favorite hobby, quilting. But recently she has found it increasingly difficult to understand the narrators, especially if they had accents or unusual speech patterns. When Outlander became a TV series, I was thrilled to share it with her, but she found she couldn’t hear it well enough to understand the Scottish accent, and trying to read the subtitles on the screen was too tiresome. She gave up.
As her tech-savvy daughter, I have been trying to help her find ways to cope, such as purchasing special speakers for her television and helping her learn to use Uber. When I took a new job with Benetech, I quickly realized that Mom was a perfect candidate for Bookshare: a senior with a lifelong love of books experiencing age-related disabilities. And an iPad.
On Mother’s Day, I gave her a one-year membership to Bookshare, the world’s largest online library for people with blindness, low vision, dyslexia, and other print disabilities. Her doctor verified that her failing eyesight qualified as a print disability. I bought her a copy of Voice Dream Reader and demonstrated the features that would help her read: larger font sizes, customized colors for better contrast, and volume and speed control for the text-to-speech (TTS) voices. I pointed out that you can speed up the voices, as I’ve seen many blind Bookshare users do, but Mom wanted the TTS to go slower. I was surprised, but didn’t question it.
The following Sunday, during our weekly phone call, Mom told me she was really enjoying Bookshare, that she had downloaded two books already, and how nice it was to be able to read again. Over the course of the next several months, Mom continually told me how thankful she was for Bookshare. She found all eight of the Outlander series books and is reading them again while we wait for the ninth one. She was so happy that she asked how to donate to Benetech.
I finally had to ask – why do you like it so much? What is it about Bookshare that works better for you than other e-readers like iBooks or Kindle?
Because I can’t see or hear well, I’m experiencing a lot more cognitive overload than I used to. With Bookshare’s TTS voices, I can set the speed a little slower to give my brain time to hear and comprehend. Once I got used to the pattern of the TTS voice – it is very even-toned – I no longer had to cope with the cadence and variation in human voices. I can enjoy books as fully as I used to without effort!
Do you have a parent, grandparent, or friend whose eyesight is failing, who can no longer hold a print book comfortably, or has multiple age-related disabilities? Anyone with a qualifying print disability can become a Bookshare member and get access to over 490,000 accessible ebooks. Bookshare is available to all U.S. students for free and at a low cost to adults who qualify.
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 490,000 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. www.bookshare.org
Benetech is a different kind of technology company. We’re a nonprofit whose mission is to empower communities in need by creating scalable technology solutions. Our work has transformed how over 400,000 people with disabilities read, made it safer for human rights defenders in over fifty countries to document violations, and equipped environmental conservationists to protect ecosystems and species all over the world. And our Benetech Labs is working on the next big impact. Visit www.benetech.org.
Special thanks to Robert Lewis, Executive Director of Maryland’s Radio Reading Network, for sharing his story.
Listening to Robert Lewis’ voice, you hear a smooth, deep passion for music, humanity, and reading, especially with Bookshare. Mr. Lewis is the Executive Director of Maryland’s Radio Reading Network, a nonprofit hosted by the Maryland School for the Blind, his alma mater.
His radio program, Vision Through Voices, provides a human touch of stories that are of interest to everyone, not just the blind community. Daily, more than two thousand listeners tune in to his broadcast to hear news from publications like The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair and much more.
“I’ve always been fascinated by what I heard on the radio,” said Lewis. “Information is empowering. Growing up in the heart of Baltimore’s inner city was an interesting place for a young black child who was blind. I never wanted to be just average or a blind person, but that was my fate.”
Blindness Didn’t Hold Him Back
As a child, Lewis would often sneak the family radio into his bedroom to listen to music and talk shows. “If I didn’t have a person to read to me, I was out of luck to learn things that piqued my curiosity,” he said. “I read braille, but back in those days, it took a lot of time and effort.” Thankfully, he had a brother who looked out for him as well as an incredible school in Maryland that specializes in educating blind children.
Now, at the age of sixty-three, Lewis has broadcasted the news to a faithful audience for more than twenty-five years. “It may not sound like the truth, but I’m thankful I’m blind,” he says. “Blindness probably saved my life because my neighborhood was rough. At times, it was filled with gangs and discrimination against people of color and people with disabilities. Blindness forced me to rise above these barriers and understand that when something is taken away from you, you try to give back in other ways.”
Blindness never stopped him from pursuing his talents and dreams. “It helped me to tap into my soulfulness and my senses to develop a deep passion for music, particularly percussion instruments, and also a love of reading,” he said. Lewis honed his musical skills early in life and learned to play the drums. He played with local musicians and national bands – even with Stevie Wonder. “When you are blind, your sense of hearing and your sense of feeling work together. I could get into the groove with other musicians pretty quickly.”
Bookshare Offers Accessible Reading Advantages
Five years ago, Lewis became an adult member of Bookshare. He says, “The online library helps me read anything I want. Reading ebooks with my preferred technology devices — the iPad and Victor Reader Stream – opened many doors for me because reading is infectious. Once you know how many titles (over 495,000) are in the Bookshare collection, the world is vast and reading enjoyment just takes over. I search for one book and always know what I’m reading next. I have a long list.”
Lewis is grateful for the funding from the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) at the U.S. Department of Education that enables Bookshare to be free for U.S. students with print disabilities. “These grants enable students of any age in U.S. schools who are blind or have low vision to become a Bookshare member for free.” He goes on to say, “Just the fact that you can explore thousands of titles is amazing! Blind people could not do that before. Reading was very selective. Bookshare members have access to unlimited downloads, and there are no time limits or book returns. It’s easy to find old books and new titles for all ages and interests.”
Some of Lewis’ favorite stories are about musicians from the 60s and 70s and their legacies such as Ray Charles and Carole King. “Music and reading are important to the soul,” says Lewis. “Life is a big challenge and you’ve got to keep pushing the limits! Bookshare has unleashed information that can help blind people read and learn like sighted people. Accessible ebooks increase opportunities for individuals with disabilities to learn how to become professors, authors, musicians, and even a radio host – any career you can imagine!”
When asked about people he admires in addition to his great love of musicians, Lewis mentions Oprah Winfrey, who lived and worked in Baltimore as a young reporter. “I hope I have had an impact on people, just as she has,” he says. “Oprah has an awesome voice and a heart of gold — maybe we can get her to talk to our audience on the radio one day.”
Interested listeners can view weekly program schedules and apply for a special radio receiver on the Radio Reading Network’s website.
To become a member of Bookshare, visit www.bookshare.org.