A guest post by Brian Meersma, a student member of the Bookshare Advisory Board
I am a high school sophomore with dyslexia. I was diagnosed at a young age, but was always eager to learn new things. Because I had trouble reading, my parents and grandparents would read to me for hours. I loved listening to all the great books they read to me and I knew there was no way I was able to read those books on my own. What I realized was that I had great listening skills. I got so much more out of books when I listened to someone else read. Early on, I did have a tutor, but I felt it didn’t really help me that much. I still could not read what I wanted to on my own.
Reading wasn’t my only challenge; spelling was hard for me too, so in 3rd grade, I got my first assistive technology device, called the Alpha Smart. I liked the built-in spell checker. The tool improved my writing and helped me to express my thoughts. For the first time, I could actually demonstrate my knowledge of a subject to my teachers.
In 5th grade I learned about audio books from RFB&D (now Learning Ally ). I read novels and textbooks by listening to the audio formats. This resource helped me too. I understood more of what I read, and got through material more quickly. I liked books from RFB&D better than reading without support. This prompted me to learn about other assistive technologies that would improve my reading and writing.
In 6th grade, my school introduced me to Kurzweil. This software opened new doors. I was able to read electronic and/or digital documents. The multi-modal experience of listening to and seeing text being highlighted and read aloud on the computer screen was a great experience. This software really helped me to comprehend what I read. At the same time, it helped me to improve my reading speed because I was able to read along faster by following the highlighted text. I no longer skipped or stumbled over words. I felt more independent and dug into the software to learn about all the different features. By 8th grade, I used it to take tests. Finally, my learning challenges were not totally impeding my abilities and I was able to keep pace with my peers.
These technology discoveries and my own ongoing searches led me to Bookshare, the online digital library free for kids with qualified print disabilities in U.S. schools. When you become a Bookshare member, you get free software that reads digital books, called Read:OutLoud Bookshare Edition. This reading software highlights words. You can change font size and background colors and look up words in a dictionary. You can also take better study notes in an outline format. Bookshare and the reading software enabled me to keep up with my class assignments, reading and homework. Fast forward several years…
Today, in high school, I get almost all of my novels and textbooks from Bookshare and also like the newspapers and magazines. I read them on my computer or with the new Read2Go portable app on my iPod touch. The app lets me read anywhere I want on the go. Just this weekend I was reading the new Steve Jobs biography that I got from Bookshare on the train. I like being able to read with a portable device and not being tied to a computer. Without Bookshare and Kurzweil, my grades would suffer. I wouldn’t be able to take the classes in school appropriate for my abilities and I wouldn’t be able to read the topics that really interest me.
Some kids think that using these tools will make them feel different from the rest of their classmates, and they will stick out. For me, not using these tools, and not understanding what the rest of the class is reading makes me feel different, and then I feel like I don’t fit in. Most of my classmates think it’s cool that I can use my laptop or iPod in class. Most of them use computers and iPods too.
Reading is still a challenge for me, but seeing how much Bookshare, Learning Ally and other assistive technologies have helped me, motivated me to share what I’ve learned with other people so that they don’t have to struggle so much. I started my own blog that has information about assistive technology devices and software. I update my blog a few times a week. You can check it out at bdmtech.blogspot.com.
This summer I started a reading group for kids with learning disabilities. We met once a week and shared ideas and tips about technology. I helped each member of our group sign up for an Individual Bookshare Membership and taught them how to download books and read them on reading software. After one member downloaded his first book and pushed the read button, he sat attentively reading and listening. His mother said that this experience was the longest session he had ever sat still to read. That was a big highlight for me! I also won the 2011 Bookshare Summer Reading Contest in the grade 9 -12 category.
With my Bookshare membership, my AT blog and our new reading group, I want to continue to share what I learned growing up as a kid with a reading disability to other teens and adults. This is my contribution to society so that they will learn about technology devices and digital books that can help them become lifetime learners too.