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Sunrise or Tsunami – The Rise of Digital Books in the Classroom

As surely as the sun rises every day, digital books are steadily, daily finding their way into classrooms. Their arrival will not flood our classrooms like a tsunami; rather they will appear because of the foresight and talent of leading educators who recognize the many benefits of digital books and know how to incorporate them into teaching strategies.

If, when, why, and how digital books will appear in classrooms are all good questions for discussion; however, a less common, extremely important question is the format of these digital books. Ideally, digital books will be “accessible” books from the beginning, with no barriers, so that all students can read and learn from them. The more educators understand about what makes a book accessible, the better all children will be served, regardless of reading style. Now, the beginning of the rise, is the best time to understand, ask about, and require accessibility, hoping that as this digital book movement evolves it will incorporate equal access for all.

Digital books have text, so what are the barriers to text learned from the print world that can be overcome if text is handled correctly from the beginning? Print text presents a tremendous barrier for students with “print disabilities,” who represent ten- to twenty-percent of all students.

For example, students who are blind or have low vision use assistive technology to read; will the new digital books work with assistive technology? Will a screen reader read the text on a web page, and provide a blind student with same ability to navigate the sections of text and link to new URLs? Will these digital books work on braille devices?* If the content is in PDF, as some digital books are, can a screen reader or a braille device read PDF content without conversion?

Many students with severe learning disabilities cannot read or process print. Some of these students are discovering that they learn better with simultaneous highlighting and reading words out loud, using multiple modalities to reinforce reading and learning. Software reading tools, often called DAISY (Digital Accessible Information SYstem) readers, exist that offer multimodal reading. Will a student with learning disabilities be able to use this kind of tool to access the digital content on a website or in a PDF?

Furthermore, will the digital content work on the augmentative communication devices used by many students with physical disabilities?

Going beyond text, digital content often incorporates more of media types, such as images and video. Yet not all students can see the images and video or hear the accompanying audio. Can content developers include description and subtitling automatically?  

The discussion of digital books is incomplete without considering one type of digital accessible book, available now, that general educators can use with students with print disabilities who are included in their classrooms. Picture a classroom with some students reading from a print textbook and others reading the same book, in an accessible format, on a computer. All students on the same page. All engaged in the material and reading in the format that works best. The teacher using the same lesson plans for the entire class. These digital accessible books are fairly well known in special education, but their greatest benefit may be in their capability to empower students with print disabilities to thrive in general education classrooms.

For informational rather than commercial purposes – because the books are completely free – educators can find and download these digital accessible books from Bookshare (, a federally funded library for students with print disabilities. An online library, Bookshare offers over 85,000 digital accessible books and free software for those reading the books.

As educators explore the world of digital content and learn about accessibility, an easy starting place is the digital accessible books from Bookshare. Bringing these books into all classrooms will bring light to all students, rather than leaving some drowning in content they can’t read.

*Links: U.S. Dept of Education Grants Funding to Bookshare to Convert Open Content Textbooks to Accessible Formats (another federally funded initiative to make graphic content accessible)

By Betsy Burgess, M. A. in Education with specialty in Learning Disabilities, Director of Marketing for Bookshare.


  1. Jim McCarthy

    I am wondering a couple things about the ten to twenty percent figure suggested here. First, is that ten to twenty percent of all students throughout k012 as well as higher education or only k-12? Also, what is the authority for that statement? It isn’t that I question the numbers at all. It is that I may have cause to use them and want to understand their derivation.

  2. Betsy Burgess

    From IDEA data, we can see the numbers of students with disabilities in K-12 and higher ed. Here’s a URL with data for 2008, the latest year available.
    Many say that 1-2% of the population have print disabilities that qualify under Chafee.
    We hear from many teachers of students with autism, or ADHD, or learning disabilities that don’t qualify under Chafee, that they would like accessible instructional materials (AIM) for their students. These students qualify under IDEA as needing AIM if their schools, teachers, IEPs say they do. The 10-20% are all the kids with other disabilities that would need AIM.

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