National Press Club

Non-Profit Tech Company Provides Books for Vision-Impaired Students

May 1, 2009 | By Mark Schoeff Jr.

College students who are blind or have a reading disability will have greater access to textbooks through an initiative announced at an April 29 Newsmaker.

Benetech, a non-profit technology company based in Palo Alto, Calif., said that it has established an agreement with schools around the country to pool the books that they have scanned and digitization.

Through the initiative, Bookshare, the online accessible library run by Benetech, connects schools so that when one of them completes the labor-intensive process of scanning and proofreading an educational text, it is available to all institutions in the network.

Bookshare also announced partnerships with major publishers, such as HarperCollins, Hachette Book Group and Scholastic to
donate digital files of their books. Bookshare operates under a
copyright exemption that allows it provide books to the disabled.

On campuses around the country, the process of converting a book to digital form often involves hours of work at the beginning of a semester that delays the availability of the texts. Bookshare hopes the new program will put books in the students’ hands when classes start.

“Day one access to textbooks materials is critical,” said Eugene
Skonicki, a third-year student at the Georgetown University Law Center and co-founder of Georgetown’s Disability Law Society. “Every classroom experience where a textbook is not in front of you is a missed opportunity.”

Skonicki said that access to texts is an important step to “level the playing field” for the disabled when it comes to attaining education and employment.

“Our job is to bring cutting edge technology to the classroom to the underserved community,” said Benetech CEO Jim Fruchterman. “Our dream is that lack of access to textbooks is no longer a barrier to students with a disability getting an education.”

Jim Marks, president-elect of the Association on Higher Education and Disability, endorsed the Bookshare program. As director of disability services at the University of Montana-Missoula, he is responsible for scanning texts used at the school.

He said that Bookshare’s mantra of “scan once, share many” makes it easier to provide access to books. If each school scans the same book, it wastes time and resources. Most schools rely on volunteers to do the job.

“It is not a simple process,” Marks said. “It isn’t a matter of pushing a button. It takes professional judgment and editing.”

Bookshare received a $32 million, five-year grant in 2007 from the Department of Education to supply digitized books to students at all educational levels. So far 56,000 students are being served.