Make College Textbooks Accessible

Four Steps to Aid Readers with Print Disabilities

Assistive Technology Specialist Diana Petschauer (right) shows a student at UNH's AT Lab Read&Write GOLD's highlighting feature. UNH AT Lab Staff & Students

Many disabilities make reading textbooks difficult. Keeping up with assignments can be exhausting for students with dyslexia or impaired vision, while physical disabilities make it impossible for some to open a book or turn a page.

For students with print disabilities, obtaining textbooks in accessible formats -- usually digital copies whose words can be enlarged, listened to (via screen reader or as an audiobook), or converted into braille -- is crucial to class success.

Many options, some free, some not, are available online and from institutions that serve persons with disabilities.

As an specialist at the University of New Hampshire's Assistive Technology Lab, one of Diana Petschauer's roles is providing textbooks in accessible formats.

Petschauer uses simple steps -- including many that students can take themselves -- to access the resources they need consistently and on time. This article is drawn from a phone interview conducted with Petschauer on May 30, 2012.

Leverage Disability Service Offices

One key to finding essential resources fast, according to Petschauer, is contacting your school's disability services office. "They often provide helpful resources or technologies you might not be aware of," Petschauer said.

An immediate benefit disability services offers is well-established resource channels.

For example, any student who purchases a textbook has the right to an accessible copy.

Publishers provide such copies on request, but their permissions process, forms, and solution formats can vary.

Assistive technology specialists manage multiple relationships and can provide the most efficient path and realistic timeframe for obtaining books. Most publishers furnish PDF files that Petschauer forwards to students or converts to an accessible format.

Students could also read and convert them using Adobe Acrobat.

The AccessText Network also provides accessible formats of college textbooks to disability service providers. Many publishers are joining, making it an easier and faster process.

Use Free Accessible Book Sources

For students who prefer to order their own books, Petschauer recommends checking free resources first. These include Bookshare, which offers free membership to students documented with print disabilities.

Also free to qualified users is the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), which can be an ideal source of classic literary. NLS books are available in braille and as digital Talking Books.

Petschauer also recommends free text-to-speech software, such as Natural Reader and Balabolka; BLIO, a free e-reader, and Bookstream -- an app that helps schools organize their digital library.

Providers such as Learning Ally -- which has an online library of over 70,000 DAISY books -- are also useful, though Petschauer said she finds few relevant titles at the post-secondary level and its $99 annual membership can be difficult for students to maintain. "We also pay a membership fee, so I can order books for students who don't have the money," Petschauer said.

Mobile Devices Make Reading, Writing Easier

Petschauer recommends reading Bookshare and Learning Ally titles on an iPad. "It's lighter than a laptop, and its built-in accessibility features (such as VoiceOver and Zoom), make it easy to use," Petschauer said. "They can use the Bookshare Read2Go or Learning Ally Audio app, and e-book apps such as OverDrive and iScroll."

Other mobile apps Petschauer recommends include iAnnotate, which can be used to highlight PDF text, and vBookz reader that can read PDFs aloud. Petschauer has posted a list of iOS accessibility apps on the UNH Assistive Technology Lab's website.

Two visually impaired students Petschauer works with use iPads and iAnnotate to access virtually all their coursework. "They get their textbooks from me as PDF files that they can open, magnify, and mark up," Petschauer said.

"They also take their exams and quizzes in PDF format right on their iPad."

To purchase technology (new iPads start at $499), Petschauer recommends contacting your state's Vocational Rehabilitation agency.

Seek Versatile Solutions

Products that combine several assistive technologies can make reading and writing more efficient and be more cost-effective for students and institutions.

One example is Read&Write GOLD from Texthelp Systems. The application combines text-to-speech, highlighting, a PDF markup tool, e-book creator, and other accessibility features that can be networked across a campus or school district.

"It's a phenomenal all-in-one toolbar," said Petschauer, who provides training on the program. "I can suggest and offer training on other resources, but then the student has to remember and return to many different programs. With Read&Write GOLD, it's all the tools they need in one place, which is why I recommend it."