I've got so many college students on my list I thought I'd share.
Textbooks for the Disabled
August 28, 2009
The Association of American Publishers and the University of Georgia this
week unveiled an electronic database aimed at making it easier for blind,
dyslexic and otherwise impaired college students to get specialized
textbooks in time for classes.
The database, called AccessText, is
designed to centralize the process by which electronic versions of textbooks
are requested by colleges and supplied by publishers. Experts say it will
allow disabled students to get their textbooks more efficiently, help
colleges save money and avoid lawsuits, and protect publishers' copyrights.
For students whose disabilities prevent them from using traditional texts,
the normally straightforward task of acquiring books for their courses can
be tedious and frustrating. Federal law requires that colleges and
universities provide disabled students equal access to educational
materials, but this is often easier said than done. College officials have
to track down and contact the publisher of every textbook that each of its
disabled students buys and request an electronic copy. If such a copy exists
-- the likelihood shrinks the older the book and the smaller the publisher
-- college officials still have to convert the file to a format that can be
read by whatever reading aid the student uses. If not, the college has to
wait, sometimes weeks, to obtain permission to scan the book and create its
own electronic version.
Once a college has an electronic copy, converting to a readable format can
be another complex process, says Sean Keegan, associate director of
assistive technology at Stanford University. Math and science texts often
arrive as scanned pages, and cannot always be easily read by the
character-recognition software the university uses to turn them into
standard electronic files, Keegan says. "That can take a longer amount of
time to process that material internally and turn it around and give that to
the student efficiently," he says.
Meanwhile, delays in the process can make it impossible for disabled
students to prepare for and participate in classes. "Students need to have a
book in time so they can do the assigned reading and study for tests and
papers," says Gaeir Dietrich, interim director of high-tech training for the
California Community Colleges system. "So if the book doesn't come until the
term has been in session for three or four weeks, that puts that student
very far behind." Some students have sued colleges over such delays, she
AccessText aims to mitigate these woes by streamlining the request and
delivery process, says Ed McCoyd, executive director for accessibility
affairs at AAP.
"There's a lot of transactional friction taking place currently," says
McCoyd. "What AccessText is trying to do is take some of that out of the
transaction by having parties agree to streamlined rules up front."
Having colleges submit requests using the AccessText portal should eliminate
the need for the publishers to require endless paperwork with each request
to protect its copyrights, McCoyd says. Under the system, the copyright
protection agreements can be handled once, during registration, and the
requester's bona fides can be verified by a log-in.
Currently, colleges that get tired of waiting for publishers to process the
paperwork and procure an electronic copy of a text sometimes just scan a
text themselves to try to satisfy the needs of disabled students in a timely
fashion, says Dietrich.
AccessText is also set up to eliminate the need for different colleges to
convert the same text to a readable format once it is acquired. Currently
"numerous schools could be doing the exact same thing, converting the same
text," says Bruce Hildebrand, executive director for higher education at the
publishers' association. Under the new system, "if one school has already
spent the time and the money to convert a file to a format, they could
advise the AccessText network, which could then make the info available that
it was still available in that format, and that school could share it with
another school" -- thereby sparing those colleges the time and resources it
would have used to convert the file themselves, he says.
Eight major publishing houses paid a total of just under $1 million to
develop the AccessText network and maintain it through its beta phase, which
will end next July. From then on, it will sustain itself by billing member
colleges between $375 and $500 annually, depending on size.
Dietrich notes that community colleges might not benefit from the AccessText
network as much as other institutions, since "we have a lot more vocational
classes and basic-skills classes, and a lot of those books don't come
through those big publishers, they come through specialized publishers," she
says. "It doesn't solve that part of the problem for us."
The network includes 92 percent of all college textbook publishers and is
recruiting even more, according to AAP officials.