Federal Grant Aims To Make Open Content Texts More Accessible

With the help of a $100,000 supplemental grant from the United States Department of Education Office of Special Education (OSEP), Bookshare will begin to make open content textbooks accessible to readers with print disabilities, as well as to those without such disabilities who might nonetheless benefit from the technology. In what the non-profit organization hopes will pave the way for a broad spectrum of open content texts in all subjects, it has chosen to launch its effort with 16 math and science textbooks approved for California high school students.

"Those with reading challenges will soon be able to read the standards-aligned digital textbooks adopted under California's first-in-the-nation digital textbook initiative," said California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. "Thanks to Bookshare and the U.S. Department of Education, these textbooks will be converted into accessible formats so students who struggle with reading traditional textbooks have a new opportunity to enhance their education."

The initial texts will be available in the standard DAISY format, which offers access to those with print disabilities via both multi-modal reading, combining highlighted on-screen text with high-quality computer-generated voice, and Braille Ready Format (BRF), a digital Braille format for use with Braille displays or embossed Braille. In addition, the OSEP grant allows the digital book files to be offered with images, including detailed math and science illustrations and image descriptions for those with visual disabilities, or in text-only presentation.

Bookshare is an initiative of Benetech, a nonprofit that creates sustainable technology to solve pressing social needs. "Traditional copyrighted books, including those contributed to Bookshare by publishers, are protected with digital rights management technology and available only to those with a documented print disability. But Bookshare's open content books will become part of the freely distributable books in [its] collection and can be used by anybody without proof of disability," said Benetech CEO Jim Fruchterman. These books, he added, "will not only help disabled students throughout the U.S. and globally, but provide parents, teachers and assistive technology developers with free access to real talking textbooks."

In 2007, Bookshare received a $32 million award from OSEP to provide free access for all those with qualifying print disabilities to the entire digital textbook library of the National Instructional Materials Access Center (NIMAC), a federally funded repository for digital versions of textbooks in current circulation. Bookshare currently offers about 60,000 titles and claims more than 70,000 members. The group said it hopes the supplemental grant for conversion of the California texts is the first step toward broadening both its offerings and its audience.

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