For special-education teachers, providing required reading for blind and learning-disabled students is a significant challenge. Now, thanks to the aid of, a non-profit digital book service based in Palo Alto, Calif., educators have access to a library of thousands of titles they can download and reproduce for use on screen readers or as MP3 files.

Bookshare is made possible by a narrow exception to U.S. copyright law, which enables students with certain physical and learning disabilities to obtain copyrighted materials without paying royalty fees. The program currently offers access to more than 17,000 titles, running the gamut from chart-topping best sellers and legal thrillers to classic Hemingway novels and sixth-grade biology textbooks, says Alison Lingane, senior product manager for Bookshare.

Across the country, special-education teachers are turning to to help provide the visually impaired with volumes of textbooks and literary works they otherwise might not have access to.

Advocates of the technology say the paperless books make in-class reading assignments easier for these students, many of whom get left behind while educators labor to scan printed text into cumbersome Braille embossers and other assistive-learning devices, such as screen readers and MP3 players.

JoEllen Waddell, program support teacher for Cooperative Education Service Agency 5, one of 12 such organizations across the state of Wisconsin responsible for helping educators implement special-education plans and other services, said at least 20 students enrolled in the three schools she oversees currently have access to Bookshare.

Waddell, who holds a master’s degree in English, said she is often befuddled by the complex nature and design of most assistive-technology solutions. “You need a Ph.D. to figure some of this stuff out,” she said. But that’s not the case with the web-based interface that accompanies Bookshare, she added.

“Bookshare is so easy to access,” Waddell said. “It’s simple for teachers to use.”

And simplicity is key for special-education teachers, who often are responsible for several students with very different learning needs, she said. They have neither the time nor the patience to sift through complex manuals to figure out how to operate the latest technologies.

“Before we make assistive technology available to students, we have to have the materials they need on eText,” she said. “Schools don’t have the time or the personnel to do that; scanning and editing text is so labor-intensive.”

Price is another factor. With a Bookshare subscription, Waddell claims schools can purchase full-text novels and required reading material for as little as $6 per text.

“Getting a book for $6 on eText is a steal,” she said. “It is a fraction of the cost [of other alternatives]–I couldn’t begin to hire an aide to do that work.”

The site’s collection consists of books scanned by educators and other individuals using scanning and optical character-recognition technology, as well as books contributed directly by publishers and authors in original digital format.

Unlike paper-based books, Lingane said, the digital texts enable special-education teachers to customize each title to the exact, and often wide-ranging, circumstances of special-needs learners. “It really optimizes access to the book for different needs,” she said.

For instance, a blind student could download one of Bookshare’s titles and then upload the entire text of the novel to his or her Braille reader. The student also could listen to the book by transferring the document to some form of text-to-speech software or MP3 player.

When opened in a screen reader, visually impaired and learning-disabled students–who often require documents in large print–can view the books with the aid of a special magnifying device.

The idea, Lingane said, is to “enable students to learn within their means.”

For students to gain access to the digital library, schools must provide certified proof of students’ physical or learning disabilities. Bookshare provides forms to participating institutions that can be signed and returned by qualified special-education teachers or program directors.

Bookshare recently began offering institutional access to participating schools, through which educators can download between 30 and 100 different titles for special-needs students per year. Teachers are not allowed to download a single book and share it among several students. Rather, the agreement specifies that teachers download one book as needed for each individual learner.

Packages start at $300 a year for 30 downloads and range to $600 a year for 100 titles over a 12-month period.

Schools and students also can purchase individual access to the library, in which students receive a password and user name and can gain access from home.

Waddell said she prefers the institutional approach, because it enables educators to download necessary books on their own time and ensures that they are available to help students upload the files into their text reader, MP3 player, or other reading device.

In March, Bookshare announced a partnership with Indiana University (IU), one of the nation’s leading alternative-text production facilities for students with disabilities, in which Bookshare will provide university students with qualifying disabilities full access to its entire online library.

In turn, IU has agreed to provide Bookshare with more than 1,800 textbooks the school has scanned for its students.

“We’ve spent several years developing a book-scanning operation that can effectively meet the alternative-text needs of our students with disabilities,” said Margaret Londergan, manager of the Adaptive Technology Center at IU, “and we understand the effort and resources required to do so. As more institutions join us in partnering with, the impact of our collective scanning efforts on educational opportunities for disabled students will only increase.”

Bookshare currently features volumes contributed by 20 major university libraries.


Indiana University