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Accessible Textbook Options for Students Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
For anyone reading this article, the phrase “back to school” is likely to be
rich in associations–going to a new school, taking new classes, finding
the right classroom on the first day of the new school year. For blind
students, making sure they have textbooks available in an accessible format
is definitely part of the challenge of starting a new year. As I reflect on
my own back-to-school experiences spanning many years, I can’t help
thinking about how much the landscape has changed with regard to textbook
accessibility. Technology has made more textbooks available to the blind
than at any other time, and in a variety of formats. Today, it is easy to
transport reading material without needing to carry a heavy backpack full of
braille volumes–yes, I did that as a high school student. Today, braille,
electronic, and audio material can coexist with ease, often in the same
In this article, we will take a brief look at the various options available
to blind students, and provide some resources for locating these materials.
1. Learning Ally:
Having Someone On Your Side When You Need Accessible Textbooks
For 70 years, the non-profit organization known today as Learning Ally has
provided recorded textbooks for thousands of students who have a print
disability. Back in the late 70s, I actually remember receiving textbooks
from what was then known as RFB (Recording for the Blind, and later RFB&D,
Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic) on reel-to-reel tape. All of the
young people reading this may want to Google that phrase later. When I was
in college during the 80s, I vividly recall boxes of cassettes containing
many hours of recorded audio and, in some cases, volunteers playing musical
excerpts on a piano in order to get the material across to me in an
accessible manner. All descriptions were vividly–sometimes
painstakingly–described, as was the case for charts and graphs. There is
probably no way to know how many thousands of hours have been put in by
volunteers all across the United States, reading everything from literature
to complex scientific reference books aloud.
Eventually, books were moved to electronic formats, and it is now possible
to download content to a specialized player or app that can handle DAISY
content, or via the mobile apps provided by Learning Ally. Along with
Read more about Daisy content here:
it is sometimes possible to read the text of the book as well, and all
Learning Ally books are marked up in such a way that students can navigate
by page, section, and subsection within a book. This is most helpful when
needing to quickly look up material. Gone are the days of switching out
cassettes and fast-forwarding to the desired content within a textbook.
Membership in Learning Ally costs $135 per year, but it may be possible to
receive assistance if you are unable to pay the cost of membership.
Accessible Textbooks in PDF Format
For the past 20 years or so, I have taught a Music Appreciation class at a
local community college. While some of the textbooks I have used over that
time have been available from Learning Ally, others have not been. Also, if
a textbook is available, it is often not the latest edition of the book.
This may work for a student, although it is not ideal, since page references
change from edition to edition, and material is updated, added, and deleted
over the years. For me as an instructor, it was necessary for me to always
use the latest edition of the textbook I was teaching from, so I reached
out to the publishers, and requested an electronic copy of the text. Almost
always, I was provided with PDF (Portable Document Format) files of the
text. PDF files are commonly used because the format makes it possible
possible to package text and images in files that are not terribly large.
While this is great for the sighted community, PDF files can be challenging
for people with visual impairments.
In a best-case situation, the blind student will receive PDF files that have
been marked up in such a way that text does not appear out of
place–columns being run together, or picture captions inserted in odd
places–and material hyperlinked to other parts of the text, or the
Internet. Often, however, PDF files will not be properly formatted for the
best reading experience with a screen reader. In this case, the student
will have to make the best of the situation. If the text is clear, and if
pictures are properly captioned, then the lack of hyperlinks may be only an
inconvenience. If text is out of order, and certain parts of the text such
as the buttons on a diagram of a piece of electronic equipment are not
labeled, things can get a bit more complicated.
Sometimes, a PDF file will contain an image of the text in a book, but not
the actual text itself. Think of taking a picture of a grocery list, rather
than typing the list into the notes application of your phone. In this
case, OCR (optical character recognition) software may be required to
convert the image in the PDF file into text that can be read by a screen
reader. Today’s OCR software, whether specialized for the blind or
mainstream, is increasingly able to produce quality results from an image
such as that found in a PDF file.
I have found book publishers to be quite willing to assist me in obtaining
electronic copies of their text, when they became aware that I was blind,
and why I needed the textbook in electronic format. Often, publishers offer
their books in a format that must be read by software they provide. This
software is often not accessible to screen readers, and the publishers must
be made to understand the problem. This sometimes takes time and patience.
Remember to be clear, concise, and courteous when talking to textbook
publishers. You may be the first blind person with whom the representative
on the other end of the line has ever spoken.
2. Obtaining Textbooks From Bookshare
For years, Bookshare has been a place where blind people have been able to
obtain books of all types, including textbooks for students. In the
beginning, Bookshare received books from volunteers who scanned and
proofread books that were then placed on the website. Today, although
volunteer scanners and proofreaders are still a vital part of the service,
many works are now obtained directly from the publisher. It is also
possible to request books that can be scanned, proofread, and placed on
Bookshare to be enjoyed by all.
It costs $75 to join Bookshare for the first time, and $50 per year
thereafter, but students can use the service for free as long as they are
Bookshare provides ebooks in a variety of formats including DAISY,
electronic braille files, and EPUB , which allows for easy reading of books
on any number of mobile devices,
Read more about EPUB format here:
both mainstream and blindness-specific. Bookshare books are text only, and
do not contain an audio option.
Other Resources for Obtaining Accessible Textbooks for People Who Are Blind
Although not primarily intended for this purpose, the National Library
Service’s BARD (braille audio reading and download) site sometimes
contains books that are used in the school setting. Books on music,
psychology, and computers are just a few possible topics. It is likely that
the latest edition of a textbook might not be available, but there might be
enough useful material available to get a student started in the right
It is sometimes possible to find books in hard-copy braille from places such
as BARD. When I was in college, I found an agency that produced braille
volumes for me at a nominal cost. The problem I found was that the books
took up a lot of room, and became out-of-date in just a few years. I
personally would not spend a lot of money having books produced in braille
today, unless it was a topic such as math that I really wanted to be able
to explore in a way that only hard-copy braille would allow.
One of the textbooks I used when teaching my music appreciation class used
VitalSource , a provider of eTextbook content to distribute their book to
me. I eventually obtained the book in PDF format, so I didn’t use the site
for long. My brief experience was quite pleasant, however. I was able to
move around the book with no problem, and content was hyperlinked in a way
that provided easy access to the Internet and other parts of the text.
Amazon, Google, and Apple are all actively providing electronic texts on a
daily basis, and each of those companies is showing an increased commitment
to, and understanding of, the needs of those who have a print disability.
It would definitely be worth checking out any or all of these options when
looking for an accessible electronic textbook.
How to Find Accessible Electronic Textbooks
With so many accessible textbook options available these days, it is
important to have a resource that will pull all of this information
together in one place, making it possible to find out whether a textbook is
available in an accessible format, and where the book can be obtained.
1. The Louis database from the American Printing House for the Blind is
one such resource.
It is possible to easily search the database for a desired textbook.
Detailed search results are provided, ensuring that you are in fact looking
at information related to the book you are interested in. You can view the
book’s table of contents, see what formats are available–sound, braille,
etc.–and know where to go in order to obtain the title.
The Bottom Line
Although it is still possible to come across a needed textbook that is not
available in an accessible format, it is less likely today than at any
other time. Publishers, content providers, and the blind community are all
working together to make as many titles accessible to the blind as
possible. If I were to go back to school today, I would be less stressed
about trying to find available accessible textbooks than I would have been
a few years ago. If the professional staff who work at schools across the
country and the students with visual impairments who attend those schools
are willing to work together, they should be able to work out the necessary
accommodations to access required printed material. When those materials
are not available, publishers will hopefully be willing to do their part to
meet the needs of the visually impaired student.
Here’s hoping that any future updates to this article are able to provide
even more resources for obtaining accessible textbooks for students with
Source for article:
During World War II the U.S. government used 260 million pounds of instant
Flavored coffees are created after the roasting process by applying flavored
oils specially created to use on coffee beans.
In 1670, Dorothy Jones of Boston was granted a license to sell coffee, and
so became the first American coffee trader.
In 1727, as a result of seedlings smuggled from Paris, coffee plants first
were cultivated in Brazil.
Milk as an additive to coffee became popular in the 1680’s, when a French
physician recommended that cafe au lait be used for medicinal purposes.
Roasted coffee beans start to lose small amounts of flavor within two weeks.
Ground coffee begins to lose its flavor in one hour. Brewed coffee and
espresso begins to lose flavor within minutes.