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Texas AT Specialist Champions Large Scale District Accessible Book Initiative

You’ve heard it before… all it takes is one person to start a ball rolling. For equal access to reading and educational books for students with print disabilities, that person is Jessica McKay, an AT Specialist in Ysleta ISD, Texas.

Jessica McKay (in red) and Leslie Armbruster (in blue)

The Ysleta district will roll out their widespread initiative this fall (2012) across 60 campuses, to hundreds of K to 12th graders who are blind, have low vision, a physical disability, such as cerebral palsy or a severe reading disability, like dyslexia.

Jessica, with the support of her supervisor, Leslie Armbruster, championed the initial cause.  “Jessica has this amazing ability to take an idea and bring it to new heights,” said Leslie. “I did it for the kids,” adds Jessica.

Through their efforts, and the support of Deenie Gross, a Texas program coordinator from Benetech, (Bookshare’s parent organization), the trio encouraged over 110 educators and administrators to become Bookshare sponsors who download accessible books and K-12 textbooks on behalf of students who qualify, and to work toward a common goal of equal access.  Participating in the initiative are Assistant Principals who lead the charge at local schools, Special Education Teachers, Reading and Dyslexia Specialists, Librarians, and the Special Education Assessment team who work on IEPs (Individual Education Plans).

Going above and beyond daily responsibilities

The IEP team is responsible for making accessible instruction materials (AIM) available for students who need the curricular materials in a digital format. “I heard about Bookshare and wanted to check it out,” said McKay. “If it saves us time and money, it would benefit our students and schools.”

In years past, AT specialists would sift through boxes of audio tapes-maybe 80 or 90 tapes-looking for one textbook. They would spend hours scanning books on ‘not-so-sophisticated’ optical scanning equipment, only to have the format be less than adequate for students with print disabilities.

They would also spend time searching the web and other resources to find literature titles, only to be confused with copyright restrictions. They would place many calls and emails to K-12 publishers to request textbooks on CD-ROMs.  On the flip side, students who needed the accessible formats had to wait weeks or months to receive large print books.  “I knew there had to be a better process,” said McKay.

Large District Implementation Roll-Out – Bookshare and AIM

As she began to use Bookshare, she found that requests for books for students who qualified exceeded her capacity to download the books.  With her supervisor’s assistance, she arranged an informational session with the Texas district leadership to describe the use of Bookshare and discuss ideas to develop a large-scale implementation process. Executive Directors for Special Education, Elementary Education, and Instructional Technology quickly saw the benefit and pledged their full support. Here are some of the key points to their large district implementation roll out:

  • Texas Education Agency (TEA) funded two Benetech program coordinators to support the roll-out with training, hands-on use and information.
  • Assistant Principals took the responsibility to be primary contacts for their campuses and assigned key teachers to be Bookshare Sponsors at each school.
  • Training was given to the Special Education Assessment staff and teachers on how to document the “need” for digital accessible books in IEPs and 504 plans.
  • Sponsor teachers received training on strategies to “build-in” accessible instruction to the teaching process and written information about the benefits of AIM.  They were also taught how to download books and monitor student progress.
  • A Bookshare “Getting Started Guide” outlined step-by-step instructions on how to sign up students for memberships and to use the free reading software with text-to-speech.
  • Summer trainings were held at schools with teachers and homebound instructors.
  • Technology support came from campus technicians, librarians and media specialists.
  • On an ongoing basis, annual district technology fairs will give educators opportunities for hands-on practice and to see demonstrations of Bookshare to broaden awareness about the initiative.

“I didn’t realize how fast this initiative would catch on,” said McKay. “Now others are talking about the benefits of Bookshare and AIM.  Our advice to other school districts is to remember that any systemic program takes time. Start small — maybe one class – for one child — or get one teacher to download digital books on behalf of students who qualify. Make a difference to a few students; see it on their faces and in their abilities, it will be well worth your effort!”

We will check back with the Ysleta ISD team in October 2012 to write about their progress.

Special thanks to Deenie Gross, Benetech/Bookshare Outreach Coordinators who works with this Texas District.


  1. My students ‘love’ the academic and recreational reading access available to them with Bookshare – congratulations on your amazing advances in Ysleta.

    • Betsy Burgess

      Thanks for your comments!

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