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Bookshare Partners With Iowa For Accessible Texts

When most students return to school in a few months, they'll be able to start on their assignments immediately with the textbooks that their teachers have assigned. But for students with visual impairments or other print disabilities, the wait to get classroom materials they can actually use can be quite long.

In one state, Iowa, a partnership with an organization that makes books accessible to people with print disabilities is helping to change that lag. Bookshare, a project of Palo Alto, Calif.-based Benetech Inc., received a $32 million, five-year grant from the federal Office of Special Education Programs in 2007 that allows it to offer free memberships to school districts and qualified students. Students can hold individual memberships as well as receive materials through their school district.

(Bookshare has many members who aren't students; anyone who is blind, has low vision, a severe reading disability or a physical disability that makes it impossible to hold a book or turn pages is qualified to become a member of Bookshare, download digital books and get free software that can read those books. The organization just announced a free three-month trial membership for any American with a qualified disability, in honor of the 20th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act. More information is available here.)

Iowa, through its True AIM program, has been the leader in getting all of its districts signed up to provide accessible texts, Bookshare officials say. "It's a wonderful vision and a wonderful policy," said Betsy Burgess, the director of marketing for Bookshare. She credited Steve Maurer, a recently-retired consultant for the Iowa Department of Education, for pushing the importance of Bookshare memberships to the more than 350 districts in the state.

"We have taken the stance that you need to be ready to go when a student who needs instructional materials enters the school," Maurer said. Currently in Iowa, 421 students are blind or visually impaired; because the state does not keep track of students based on other disability categories, Maurer said he did not know how many other students might be taking advantage of Bookshare services. One district membership could service more than one student.

How Bookshare interfaces with the needs of schools is an interesting, and complicated, dive into the world of disabilities and copyright law.

Normally, unauthorized copying of books would be a copyright infringement, but the so-called "Chafee Amendment" makes a specific exemption that allows authorized entities like Bookshare to convert copyrighted books into accessible formats for individuals with qualified print disabilities. Bookshare adds hundreds of books to the online library collection each month through contributions from publishers, universities and volunteers.

People with certain disabilities like dyslexia could also qualify for Bookshare, but as this "who qualifies" information page notes, the disability has to be qualified by a certifying professional and have a physical basis. And there's another set of students who could benefit from accessible texts—students learning English, for example—who are not eligible for this particular service.

That kind of broad accessibility of instructional materials falls under the framework of what is called universal design for learning. Right now Bookshare is working only with a small group of students who are covered under the Chafee Amendment, but one day that number could expand if laws change, Burgess said.

For qualified students with print disabilities, being a Bookshare member means quicker access to instructional materials and the opportunity to start their assignments on time and read what their sighted peers are reading. And for their teachers and school districts, it means an easier way to meet the federal standard under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that accessible instructional materials be provided in a "timely fashion."

But access to materials is only part of the equation, Maurer said, making a point that applies to broader UDL initiatives as well. "We've tried to make the point in Iowa that accessible materials are not the end-all. You still have to have good instruction."

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