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Bookshare Plans to Make Graphics, Math in Books More Accessible

More resources will be devoted to making math and graphics accessible to students with vision impairments and learning disabilities.

The U.S. Education Department just awarded Palo Alto, Calif.-based Bookshare another $32 million in grant money over the course of the next five years to convert more books into versions students with certain disabilities can download and read for free at the same time they are published on paper. Bookshare also will use the grant work on the trickier issue of translating diagrams and math texts into something easy for this group of students to visualize, even if they can't see them.

The money is in addition to a $32 million grant award the nonprofit was awarded in 2007 to convert books of all types provided by publishers in a special digital formatinto books that schools, and students at home, can use easily.

The process is a lot faster than recording audio books the old-fashioned way: using actors. Bookshare uses a computer-generated voice so books are available in real time. (You can hear what one Bookshare voice sounds like near the end of this story.) And students can read along with the text, have the text repeated as often as they need, enlarge it, or highlight words as the computer voice is reading aloud.

"While more content today is 'born digital,' it also needs to be 'born accessible.' As a nonprofit that uses the technology tools pioneered in Silicon Valley, we are committed to continue revolutionizing the field of accessibility at a fraction of the cost of current approaches, delivering the next generation of innovation," said Betsy Beaumon, vice president and general manager of the literacy program at Benetech, the parent nonprofit of Bookshare.

One of the challenges has been turning graphic elements of books and texts into something that is as easily accessible as the words. Bookshare will use some of the tools developed for this purpose by the DIAGRAM Center, which is also run by Benetech.

Another goal of the grant award is to double Bookshare student membership from 200,000 to 400,000 and increase the number of educational titles in its library to more than 200,000.

When I first wrote about Bookshare last year, I found that it's hugely popular once schools get into the rhythm of using it—it does take a little work on the front end, and there is some work to be done to keep Bookshare books in the hands of only those who are entitled to it to protect copyright laws. The use of Bookshare is limited to students with vision impairments, severe dyslexia, or who are physically unable to hold books.

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