Accessibility | 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 and its 135,000 titles.

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 and its 135,000 titles.

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 are unlikely to buy their traditional print products anyway.

"Our books, at core, are e-readers," explained Fruchterman, while cautioning that partner vendors have made a number of format adjustments in order to serve their various constituents--those who are vision-impaired, have physical disabilities, or have various learning disabilities.

One app developed by Bookshare, Read2Go, gives users the ability to both read the text and listen to an audio version, a feature that is particularly helpful to students with dyslexia.

According to Stephan Hamlin-Smith, executive director of the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD), accessible media instruction is one of the greatest challenges facing post-secondary education. An AHEAD report notes that in 2008 (the last year for which records are available), 2.1 million students in the United States had some kind of disability, representing 10.8 percent of all college students. A little over a quarter of those had some kind of learning disability, while 15 percent had health or mobility impairment.

According to AHEAD, nearly 80,000 materials have been downloaded by college students from Bookshare during its 10-year history. While this pales in comparison to the number of materials downloaded by K-12 students, it is substantial given some of the different challenges posed by higher education, Hamlin-Smith said.

"That's because of the size of the ecosystem," he said, "the sheer number of titles, and the number of products."

While there are a vast number of learning materials in use in higher education, Hamlin-Smith felt that there are a relatively small number of end users of any given object, making the "functional connection between the publisher and accessible output fragile."

Nevertheless, he continued, "the ability to listen to audio and read at the same time, to take notes, to click on a word and find a definition, and to follow along at your own pace are qualities that are quite extraordinary."

About the Author

Michael Hart is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and the former executive editor of THE Journal.

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