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How Bookshare is Closing the Literacy Gap in Alaska (Part 1)

Assistive Technology of Alaska logoThis two-part blog describes Alaska’s approach to providing assistive technology resources to support reading and the positive effect on people with disabilities

In 2000, Mystie Rail moved to Anchorage, Alaska, for what she thought would only be one year. Nineteen years later, she still resides in Alaska administering assistive technology support services throughout the state. Mystie is the Executive Director of Assistive Technology of Alaska (ATLA), a nonprofit organization that provides accessible and cost-effective technology solutions that promote independent living and success for residents with disabilities “from twinkle to wrinkle,” says Mystie.

Alaska’s geographic, linguistic, economic, and cultural diversity present challenges to ATLA that are unlike those experienced by most other state agencies. As a result, Mystie and her team must be innovative, resourceful, and persistent in finding solutions, such as Bookshare and other tools, to help students and adults with reading barriers.

Alaska’s Unique Characteristics Present Challenges

To put the challenges of ATLA’s mission in perspective, consider these facts:

  • Alaska is twice the size of Texas with roads covering a mere 5% of the state
  • 1/20th of 1% of the land is inhabited
  • 380 towns in the “bush” have fewer than 500 residents and are reachable only by plane or ATV
  • Cost of food and household items is 300% higher in villages
  • 70% of students are below proficient in reading

To meet the needs of students, Mystie grabs her sleeping bag, fills totes with supplies, and hops on a bush plane. She thumbs a ride on a snowmobile from the airport to the school where she meets with students who have learning disabilities, visual impairments, and physical challenges to set them up with AT. To keep things simple for the schools, she recommends one suite of products including iPads, Bookshare, Voice Dream Reader, and Read&Write. She and her staff provide assessments, equipment, and training for teachers and students.

Multi-Pronged Approach Gets the Job Done

“My formula for success is to get the school district’s tech department on my side, recommend AT to buy, offer mandatory (and free) professional development training for teachers, and provide outreach to the entire community, including seniors with visual impairments. If you offer Bookshare support to the elders in the community, everyone feels included. Integrating community involvement and cultural diversity into our service delivery model truly makes a difference. Inclusion shouldn’t just be something we talk about within the walls of the school, it should be exercised everywhere – especially in rural and remote regions,” says Mystie.

ATLA uses uPAR – Universal Protocol for Accommodations in Reading – a screening tool to determine the optimal method of learning for a given student. The results show a student’s reading and comprehension level using silent reading, listening to an adult read, and digital text-to-speech with highlighting. For example, a student might be reading at a third-grade level using only silent reading but comprehending at a fifth-grade level with narration and highlighting. “This assessment shows the power of data to determine which accommodations are most effective for each student,” says Mystie.

ATLA’s professional development training covers basic iOS accessibility features like text-to-speech, how to search for a book in Bookshare, and how to read a book using the Voice Dream Reader app. Says Mystie, “I love Bookshare’s curated Reading Lists which are like virtual bookshelves. They are the #1 time-saving feature because teachers can assign popular books like early readers, Percy Jackson and Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, and other favorites with a few clicks.”

Mystie is quick to emphasize that technology alone does not fix problems. “Students still have to read, write, study, and put the work in, but they just do it differently,” she says. “It’s important to focus on the service and the process rather than the tools.”

High School Student with Dyslexia Has a Breakthrough

In Part 2, learn how high school student LenaMarie used AT and Bookshare to improve her reading and comprehension levels. As a bonus, her anxiety about her school challenges decreased as she built a belief in herself.

Bookshare is FREE for qualified U.S. students and schools. Learn how Bookshare can help your students with dyslexia, blindness, physical disabilities, and other reading barriers.

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