Accessible Media| Feature

A Free Cloud Library for Students With Disabilities

Bookshare just celebrated its 10th anniversary as a provider of digital accessible materials to students with print disabilities. More than 190,000 people--mostly students--have access to the cloud-based library that currently has more than 135,000 titles available.

Sometimes Jim Fruchterman describes Bookshare as "Amazon meets Napster meets Books for the Blind--but legal." Other times, he more modestly states, "Think of us as a lending library for the vision-disabled."

However he characterizes it, Bookshare just celebrated its 10th anniversary as a provider of digital accessible materials to students with print disabilities. More than 190,000 people--mostly, but not all of them, students--have access to the cloud-based library that currently has more than 135,000 titles available.

Fruchterman, CEO of Benetech, a Palo Alto, CA-based nonprofit that focuses on sustainable technology for social needs, said he came up with the idea when his teenage son first introduced him to Napster back in 1999. A former Silicon Valley entrepreneur and 2006 MacArthur Fellow, Fruchterman wondered if something similar couldn't be done to provide print materials to those with vision disabilities.

His first stop was his lawyer's office. "He told me two things," Fruchterman said. "First, let's not call it Bookster. Second, let's talk to the publishers and tell them in advance we're going to steal their materials."

The legal key to providing so many digital texts to those with disabilities is an exception to US copyright law called the Chafee Amendment, which in 1996 made it possible for Bookshare to legally provide copyrighted digital books at no charge to people with bona fide disabilities. To date, 180 publishers have contributed titles to the initiative. Fruchterman said many cooperate out of a sense of corporate social responsibility, while others see it as a way to get their editorial products more attention in the marketplace, particularly since vision-impaired people weren't likely to buy their traditional print products anyway.

"Our books, at core, are e-readers," Fruchterman said, only there are a number of formats that have been created by partner vendors that each make adjustments in order to serve the various constituents--those who are vision-impaired, have physical disabilities, or have various learning disabilities.

One app developed by Bookshare, Read2Go, allows users the ability to both read the text and listen to an audio version of the same thing.

That is the particular technology that has Angie Applegate, principal of Town Center Elementary School in Coppell, TX, so excited. She has 27 students with dyslexia who began using Bookshare this year.

"We just felt there was this great need for an audio component," Applegate said. "We like to have everything possible read aloud. We have already seen real growth in fluency."

Her district, Coppell Independent School District, gets Bookshare at no charge, thanks to an agreement Bookshare has with the US Department of Education's Office of Special Education Programs to provide it to all qualified students. As a result, in the last four years, membership has grown from a couple of thousand to more than 175,000.

Although Bookshare's main focus is print-disabled students, Applegate has had the Read2Go app installed on every computer in the school and made available to all students on their own devices. It's part of her drive to have students "learn anything anytime anywhere."

Fruchterman has a similar goal in that he hopes Bookshare is eventually available to anyone who wants to use it, not necessarily just those with learning disabilities or vision impairment.

"I hope we can change the way people look at educational materials," he said. "You don't have to have a disability to have something accommodate you with learning."

As to whether Bookshare leads to improved reading skills or any other particular educational metric, at this point there is little real research. People like Applegate are pleased though.

So is Sallie Spencer, a resource room teacher at Olivet Middle School in Olivet, MI, who spoke about her vision-impaired students.

"These students read books that their peers are reading and that makes them feel so good," Spencer said.

Otherwise, Fruchterman said, there hasn't been any traditional research done on the subject because nobody wants to impede students with disabilities by placing them in a control group. Nevertheless, he said, he is always on the lookout for a Ph.D. candidate who needs a good dissertation topic.

About the Author

Michael Hart is the executive editor of THE Journal.

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