The impact of not fully accommodating students with reading barriers adds up
One hundred eighty million. That is the number of times that we estimate a student with a disability cannot read a textbook during a school year.
Students receive textbooks in standard print formats or even digital PDFs, so why does this happen? While traditional books work for the majority of a class, students with learning differences may not be able to access content in this format.
A student with dyslexia cannot decode printed words in a book. A student with cerebral palsy cannot hold a book or turn its pages. A blind student must read in braille and has to wait weeks or months to get an alternative format. Despite our best efforts, too many students with these types of reading barriers are not receiving equal opportunities to learn.
This perspective sheds light on the frequency of these occurrences. How often are students with reading barriers left behind because they do not receive reading accommodations including educational materials in formats that work for them? And what steps can we take to ensure all students have access to the materials they need to learn?
How many times?
Let’s assume that students, on average, need at least five textbooks for the school year. They will study four core subjects: math, science, English language arts, social studies/history, plus an elective like foreign language or visual arts.
At one school, student X requires audio in order to read. The school procures five books it believes to be accessible. Three are audiobooks, and two are in PDF. While the audiobooks are accessible to the student, the two PDFs cannot be manipulated to provide the audio support the student needs. Despite the school’s efforts to provide accommodations, the student is missing 2 of 5 critical learning materials.
[Note that this is an illustration. There are a myriad of reasons that a book may be inaccessible. Students may have different reading barriers that require other accommodations such as large print, braille, or color contrasting. Maybe the acquired books are accessible, but can only be used at school, but not at home.]
Now let’s look at how often the student is unable to access these books. Let’s say the student needs to use them just one time per week throughout the school year. That means twice each week, the student cannot access the required content.
There are 36 weeks in the average school year. If a student has trouble accessing information in two books each week, that means a single student cannot access information 72 times per year! The effect: incomplete homework assignments, lack of preparation for class and tests, lower participation, and overall, too many instances that a student is denied an appropriate public education simply because they learn differently.
How many students?
There are approximately 50 million K-12 students in public schools in the U.S. Approximately 5% of the population has a reading barrier like dyslexia or low vision. That sums up to 2.5 million students in the U.S. who need books in alternative formats as accommodations.
Buckle up, because this is where it gets depressing.
While some schools may be able to provide 100% of necessary accessible materials for their students, many struggle to procure even one necessary book in an accessible format. If we take student X’s experience as the average, that means there are 72 times per year that 2.5 million students cannot read their classroom materials. This implies there are a total of 180 million instances every school year in the U.S. that students with learning differences are unable to read, participate, and learn!
A solvable problem
This is a solvable problem. These students are smart, talented, motivated young people who want to build knowledge and perform like their peers. However, when they possess reading barriers, they require accommodations to reach their potential. The responsibility for educators is not only to provide some form of alternative format, but also to work with the student to identify the particular reading accommodation that will address the student’s unique learning challenges.
Services like Benetech’s Bookshare initiative can help schools ensure that their students with reading barriers receive an appropriate public education. Free for all US schools and students, the library provides not only the largest collection of textbooks, educational materials, young adult and children’s books, but also the most customizable reading experiences. Students can listen to books read aloud, follow along with karaoke-style highlighting, read in braille or large font, and customize their learning experience in ways that work for them.
As educators and the broader community that supports students with reading barriers, we can help solve this problem and drastically reduce the number of times students are unable to learn. With the right reading accommodations, we can better equip students with the tools they need to learn and create more equal opportunities for those who are being left behind. Learn how Bookshare can help.
Bookshare is an ebook library that makes reading easier. People with dyslexia, blindness, cerebral palsy, and other reading barriers can read in ways that work for them with ebooks in audio, audio + highlighted text, braille, and other customizable formats. Students can read on virtually any device, including laptops, Chromebooks, tablets, smartphones, assistive technology devices, and MP3 players. With over 780,000 titles, educators and students can find virtually any book for school, work, or the joy of reading. Membership is FREE for qualified U.S. students and schools through an award from the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), US Department of Education.
Fred Slone is Director of Operations, Global Literacy at Benetech. Brad Turner, VP and GM of Global Education and Literacy at Benetech also contributed to this piece.
The vertical infographic is divided into a title, four sections, and a footer.
The title reads: “180 Million Times Students Were Denied Learning.” Beneath the title is a subtitle “The impact of not accommodating students with disabilities adds up.”
The first section is titled “2.5 million students.” The text reads “The number of students in the U.S. who need books in alternative formats due to dyslexia, blindness, cerebral palsy, and other reading barriers.” On the right are icons of a person using a wheel chair, a person using a cane, and a person sitting at a desk, leaning his head on his hand, while another person places a hand on their back.
The second section is titled “72 times per year.” The text reads “Assume that a student uses 5 textbooks during a school year. 2 of the 5 are not available in a format like audio or braille that she can read. She uses the textbook at least once a week during a 36-week school year. That equals 72 times that she cannot read and misses the opportunity to learn.” On the left is a set of 5 books.
The third section is titled “180 million lost opportunities.” The text reads “2.5 million students times 72 missed learning opportunities equals 180 million times students with reading barriers were denied the opportunity to learn.” On the right two icons representing students stand with question marks over their head. One scratches his head.
The fourth section is titled “There is a solution.” The text reads “With the appropriate reading accommodations and tools like Bookshare, students with reading barriers won’t be left behind.” On the left are three icons representing audiobooks, reading on a tablet, and reading on a refreshable braille device.
A footer with the Bookshare logo reads “Bookshare is a free online library of 800,000 ebooks for students who have reading barriers. Learn more at bookshare.org.”