July 2017 Issue  Volume 18  Number 7

Access to Education

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 electronic file.

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.

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 recorded audio, 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.

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 in school.

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, 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 direction.

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. 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 visual impairments.

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