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Tech Company Wins Ed. Dept Award to Create Accessible Books

Over the past 10 years, the software company Benetech has been funded by the U.S. Department of Education to create accessible books for students with print disabilities through its Bookshare initiative.

As the company embarks on its third five-year funding cycle with the Education Department after converting hundreds of thousands of texts, Benetech faces a new challenge: converting the graphic-rich books that are popular today into formats that can be used for students who have blindness or low vision, a physical disability, or dyslexia, said Brad Turner, the company's vice president of global literacy

"Harry Potter is pretty easy. It's chapter titles, text, page numbers—it's a great story that is 400 pages long and your screen reader really reads it," Turner said in an interview with Education Week. "Columns, pictures, callouts [a text description of a part of an illustration, usually connected to the image by a line or an arrow], equations, pictures...that's much more difficult to navigate, as well as to make navigable."

To support that work, the Palo Alto, Calif. company has created the DIAGRAM Center, a source for publishers looking for ways to make their books accessible to students with different learning needs. 

"We're just as a point where, as an industry, we're putting standards in place," Turner said. "If a book can be born digital, it should be born accessible." 

Benetech, based in Palo Alto, Calif., was awarded $32 million last month from the Education Department to continue its accessiblity work. It also received awards from the U.S. Department of Education in 2007 and in 2012. To access Bookshare, students have to have a qualifying disability, which is usually certified through their school. Currently, around 500,000 students in all 50 states are Bookshare student members, about 85 percent of whom have dyslexia. 

In 2011, Education Week wrote an article describing Benetech's work. What Benetech and similar companies do is more complex than just converting a book into a form that can be read by an e-reader. It creates files that can be used with refreshable Braille displays, or that can be shown on a e-reader and voiced at the same time. An important parts of the conversion work is making sure that all the parts of the book—graphics, as previously mentioned, as well as indexes, chapter titles, tables of content and the like—are properly coded so they can be understood by different devices. 

The company hopes to offer its services to an additional 200,000 students and expand its library to over 800,000 books, up from its current library of about 600,000 titles. And it also plans to continue work with publishers so that ultimately, its conversion services won't be necessary because the books are created with accessibility features from the start.

"When publishers are doing that, we win," Turner said.


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