Students with disabilities often wait weeks or months for their textbooks to be specially formatted, but now a new higher-education partnership could make these books more widely available to students by scanning books and expanding an online library.

Nonprofit company Bookshare announced April 29 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., that 11 colleges and universities would contribute thousands of books to students and reduce the duplication and proofreading costs of campuses that must make reading material available to students who are blind, have low vision, or are unable to turn pages.

Bookshare has steadily expanded reading material for learners with disabilities after receiving a $32.5 million, five-year grant from the Department of Education in 2007. Despite the federal funding, college students with disabilities continue to wait midway through a semester before they get textbooks and reading material they can read.

Scanning, adjusting, and proofreading the written works takes many colleges several weeks. By teaming up with 11 universities–including Arizona State University, Texas A&M University, and the University of California at Berkeley–more books will be scanned, placed into the Bookshare library, and be ready for distribution.

"This whole issue has been sort of roiling for years," said Jim Fruchterman, CEO of Benetech, the nonprofit organization that operates Bookshare, which was launched seven years ago. "The whole idea is that if one school has put the energy in, let’s make sure all schools can take benefit from that. … Working closely with U.S. colleges and universities, we can demonstrate the power of pooling our resources to benefit students with qualified disabilities who need timely access to accessible books."

Bookshare, which has 50,000 student members, has made more than 46,000 books available for students with disabilities and will continue to produce 1,000 books a month, Fruchterman said. The company once scanned 200 books every month.

Fruchterman said bolstering accessibility to students with low vision, for example, has gained attention from higher-education officials in recent years. Fruchterman pointed out that scanning books under the Bookshare University Partnership was made possible by a U.S. copyright-law exemption–called the Chafee Amendment–that makes it legal for books to be copied for people who can prove they have a print disability.

"I think it’s become much better understood that serving students with disabilities is a requirement to … complying with civil rights," he said. "It’s pretty established that schools have this obligation."

Jim Marks, president-elect of the Association of Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD) and the director of disabilities services for the University of Montana at Mazula, said the university-partnership program would eliminate the costly redundancy of scanning books and customizing them for students with disabilities. Scanning and proofreading a single book can cost as much as $1,000, according to recent statistics.

"We have to provide information to students with disabilities just as quickly as to other students, and that’s a pretty high bar," said Marks, who is blind and has used scanned literature from Bookshare since the nonprofit was launched in 2002. "It’s kind of a shame that we have to provide access to the same book over and over again at different institutions. That’s why I think this concept will be appealing."

Ashley Seymour, a junior at the University of Michigan-Flint who has been blind since birth, said the ever-growing Bookshare library will simplify her search for new reading material.

"I just download my books, convert [them] to MP3 files for my iPod, and go to class," said Seymour, a health care major.

Books for persons with disabilities are not yet ubiquitous, higher-education officials said, but Bookshare’s appeal to universities and colleges could attract other institutions where students are disadvantaged because of delays in book scanning.

"This is not going to be the answer," Marks said, "but it will be an answer."

Links:

Bookshare

eSchool News: "Bookshare.org offers 17,000 royalty-free texts" (May 2004)

Association of Higher Education and Disability

University of Montana