September 2012 Issue  Volume 13  Number 9

Access to Textbooks

A Step Forward for Accessible Textbooks: A Review of the STudent E-rent Pilot Project

As a recent college graduate, I've been through just about everything when it comes to obtaining textbooks in an accessible format. There were the publishers who took weeks to deliver an accessible version of the book. There were the books that, no matter how hard you tried, just would not scan well using optical character recognition software, and there was the persistent need to coordinate all of this with my disability resource office, a place that, at least in my case, didn't seem to exhibit any degree of urgency. While occasionally I would get lucky and find my desired title on BookShare or another similar source, a simple solution for obtaining my textbooks in a timely fashion perpetually eluded me.

Perhaps my experiences would have been much different had the STudent E-rent Pilot Project (STEPP) been in existence. STEPP is a program that aims to overcome many of these shortcomings, placing blind or print-disabled students on a level playing field with their peers.

Sponsored by a federal grant, STEPP was launched in 2010 by the Alternative Media Access Center and Georgia Tech University in partnership with CourseSmart, one of the largest distributors for college textbooks. Using the CourseSmart website, thousands of titles are available on a rental basis for online viewing. Titles are available for roughly half the cost of purchasing the physical book at retail price.

While other programs are available that offer textbook rentals for students, this is one of the few examples where practically the entire system is accessible. CourseSmart offers an accessible reader that allows for simple navigation and searching of the book.

Getting Started

To get started and search for available titles, visit the CourseSmart website. There is a link available for screen reader users at the top of the page, which leads to more information about STEPP and the accessible textbook service. The account creation process is simple and to the point, and users are able to browse and search for books by title, author, or International Standard Book Number (ISBN).

Once your account has been created, it's necessary to submit a request to enable the accessible reader. To do this, send CourseSmart an e-mail or call its toll-free customer service hotline at (866) 588-3197. I called the toll-free number shortly after opening the account, but the customer service person who took the call seemed unaware of the accessible reader and escalated our request. I was then e-mailed some information about reading books using the mouse and other information not pertinent to blind users. Luckily, my e-mailed message was answered efficiently, and access to the accessible reader was enabled without issue. So, using the e-mail method may be the most efficient way to accomplish this task. While an online form to request access would be a welcome convenience, this process is only required once, after which the reader is available for all books.

STEPP and CourseSmart deserve many kudos for making this process student-centered and for not requiring intervention by a disability services office. Blind and visually impaired students should be afforded the same rights for receiving and reading their textbooks on-demand, and the elimination of cumbersome and unnecessary hoops is a welcome departure from the policies of many publishers.

CourseSmart claims that roughly 80 percent of the titles on its site are accessible, including many that feature enhanced navigational elements such as heading and list tags. While there is no designation of a title's accessibility in the search results, titles are available for a 14-day free trial, during which the usability can be determined. In addition, users can request a book be tagged for accessibility, a process that takes between two to three weeks according to the CourseSmart Frequently Asked Questions. Some titles in the STEM fields, including technical manuals, may be harder to decipher but progress is being made to provide greater access to these books as well.

The Accessible Reader

The primary way to read textbooks accessibly with CourseSmart is the accessible reader. This is a completely Web-based solution that allows for browsing, reading, and searching books. I tested the basic functionality with multiple desktop and mobile Web browsers, and the experience was similarly positive across the board.

The layout is generally presented with links and options on the top and the text of the current page below this. You can use heading navigation to quickly move to the "Book Text" heading to start reading the page. If your screen reader has a place marker, it can be used to mark this heading and quickly return to it on subsequent pages. iOS users can use the rotor to select "Navigate by Headings" and, then, use the "Read to End" feature upon finding the "Book Text" heading. Android 4.1 users can find the book text section of the page using "Explore by Touch" and, then, swiping right or left to hear the content. Buttons to jump to the next or previous page are available near the book text.

Returning to the top of the page, several additional options are available. A "Go To" box allows the user to type in a specific page number to begin reading from that page. Alternatively, a "Search" box allows for a simple full-text search of the book. There is also a Table of Contents displayed, making it simple to jump between chapters or sections.

A handy Notes feature lets users attach information or jot down ideas on any page. These notes can then be viewed by page or all at once. One advantage of the reader application being Web-based is that these notes become accessible on any platform where the book is viewed.

Since the text is displayed and rendered using a screen reader's normal Web viewing techniques, copying and pasting is performed just as it would be on any other Web page. Conversely, there is a Highlight feature offered, but it's not currently accessible. Finally, up to ten pages at a time can be printed from the program, which includes any notes present on the page.

Perhaps one of the most useful features of the application is the ability to read books offline. This allows you to read a chapter or an entire book without an Internet connection on a single computer or mobile device. Offline viewing is only available with Firefox version 3.6 or later, Safari 5.1 or later, or the Google Chrome web browser. The process for checking out a book is simple and involves completing a quick form. The relevant portion downloads to the computer and is immediately available for reading offline using the same accessible reader. Simply return to this page and select "Check In" to return the book.

Mobile Apps

CourseSmart offers mobile apps for the iPhone and iPad as well as Android devices. Unfortunately, none of these apps appeared to include full accessibility. While it's possible to sign in to your account and browse titles, the actual text of a book is not presented accessibly. This is unfortunate as it's often more difficult to quickly navigate websites on mobile platforms. A mobile app with automatic text reading and other accessibility features would serve to improve access to the material available on CourseSmart and provide for a complete reading experience. We reached out to @CourseSmart on Twitter regarding this, and the reply stated to "expect gradual accessibility improvements for mobile apps over the next several months."


I'm thrilled to see yet another way for students and others to gain access to textbooks and other materials. The STEPP program brings same-day access to even more titles, many of which were previously not available from other sources. It's also one of the first examples where blind and visually impaired readers are expected to pay the same price for this access as anyone else who uses the system. While the service as a whole has created many positive benefits, we hope for continued improvements, including full access to the mobile CourseSmart apps, the ability to accessibly highlight text, and increased access to technical materials. STEPP should be commended for their efforts thus far, and I look forward to even more access in the future.

Additional Resources

Comment on this article.

Previous Article | Next Article | Table of Contents

Copyright © 2012 American Foundation for the Blind. All rights reserved. AccessWorld is a trademark of the American Foundation for the Blind.