By Lillian Mongeau

Elizabeth is a college freshman who has severe dyslexia that makes it impossible for her to decipher printed materials. Nearly every night for 12 years of school, Elizabeth’s mother would sit down and read her daughter’s school work to her because that’s the only choice they had.

But a few months before starting college, Elizabeth discovered an online library called, run by a small non-profit called Benetech.

“My life changed as I entered the world of accessible literature,” Elizabeth wrote on Bookshare’s blog.

For Elizabeth and the millions of students who are “print disabled” — meaning they have trouble reading because of dyslexia or vision impairment — many textbooks are not available in an audio format or in any other format that’s easily accessible. Bookshare converts texts into accessible digital formats–mostly audio and digital braille–for those who can’t decipher print.

It’s not that Benetech invented accessible literature. The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), which is part of the Library of Congress, has 300,000 titles and close to 1 million registered readers. The library provides audio books, Braille books and digital files that communicate with electronic Braille notetakers. However, many NLS books must be requested by mail and wait lists for popular texts can be long. In the last few years, the NLS has started offering some texts for download.

A few other services, like the nonprofit Learning Ally, which has been around since 1948, also offer accessible books for the dyslexic and visually impaired. Volunteers of Learning Ally volunteers read books out loud and those recordings are uploaded to an online library in an accessible format that works much like Bookshare. What Bookshare does differently is focus on the technology element. Instead of a book read by a volunteer, Bookshare offers a book that will be read by a computer. To this end Bookshare focus on developing software in-house.**

Currently Bookshare, which was founded in 2001, offers more than 150,000 titles, which can be downloaded in a file format that works with several different digital solutions. Membership is free for all students, including those in adult education, and $50 per year for everyone else, not including a $25 one-time set up fee. For textbooks that aren’t yet available on Bookshare, users can send in a request for those titles, which then take anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months to convert.

“We want books in a format everyone can use,” said Betsy Beaumon, vice president of Benetech.

Benetech’s user-friendly software and its efforts to work with publishers to create accessible digital texts on the front-end have earned the small company a major grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Last month, the Department of Education awarded Benetech $6.5 million a year through 2017 to continue and expand its work to make textbooks, textbook images and software innovations for users more widespread.

Bookshare books aren’t just PDFs of print pages. Each page is scanned and processed through an optical character recognition program that translates the image file into a text file. That file is proofread to eliminate typos and ensure that things like odd page layouts haven’t damaged readability. Finally, the file is formatted so that it can be “read” in a digital voice by screen reading software — a computer program that reads what’s on the screen — or fed to a Braille notetaker.

Benetech engineers have also produced an iPhone, iPad and Android app that makes these files user-friendly in a variety of ways. For example, it’s easy to skip to a chapter heading or even a specific page just as a sighted reader could with a paper textbook by using a combination of aural clues and tapping of the touch-screen.

One of two specially created voices can be chosen to read the text. The voices can be sped up or slowed down without losing their pleasant tone. For Rob Turner, the head of customer service at Benetech, this means no more “chipmunk voices.” Turner is blind and in order to read texts as fast as sighted readers when he was in college, Turner would speed up the tape deck playback. With years of practice, he can listen to and take in aural information this way much faster than most people.

Since many legally blind people have some amount of vision and because dyslexic readers can see, the software also has a visual element. The size and color of the text can be changed. The background color can also be changed—this has been shown to help some dyslexic readers. A highlighter can be set to follow each word of the text as it’s read out loud.

Math equations have traditionally been a big stumbling block for this demographic of readers. The software that “reads” text from the screen cannot read image files and math equations are often in image files. Benetech has created a program that allows a user to type a math equation into a box that will translate the equation into code that works with its software or that can be fed into a Braille notetaker.

Rick Roderick, who has been blind since birth, has made a career out of teaching other blind people to use computers and Braille notetakers. As such, he’s stayed on the cutting edge of technology to help the blind. Bookshare, he said, is the best innovation yet.

“Bookshare has totally improved my quality of life,” he said.

The biggest change has been the speed at which he can access books, Roderick said.

“My frustration was I would hear about a book on Morning Edition or Fresh Air and I remember thinking, ‘I wish I could read that,’ knowing it might be available in a year and a half,” he said. “Bookshare changed all that.”

Now, Roderick said he can get new books within days or weeks of their publication date. As soon as it’s uploaded to Bookshare, he can access it. He can also get same-day news from print publications like The New York Times and a list of other big and small periodicals.

“I remember asking one of my teachers in first grade, ‘Will there ever be a Braille newspaper?’” Roderick said. “She said, ‘No, that would be impossible.’ That is now possible.”

Benetech leaders hope their recently awarded grant will continue to make even more content readily available to those who cannot decipher print. They have already begun conversations with publishers about how eBooks can be formatted for accessibility from the beginning of the printing process so the long process of scanning and changing file types can be eliminated.

Beaumon said she is especially excited about the work they’ve begun with a few textbook publishers in advance of the switch to Common Core standards. If digital files are created as “accessible literature” in the first place, Beaumon said there would be more high-quality content available more quickly.

“Now is the opportune moment,” she said.

Elizabeth is about to start her sophomore year of college. She’s developed the habit of figuring out exactly what books she’ll need for her upcoming semester and making sure they’re available on Bookshare months in advance. If they’re not, she buys two copies of the book, one for herself and one to send to Benetech for scanning. That way, everyone will have access to the information.

“I consider it a privilege to have the opportunity to read every word,” she wrote on the Bookshare blog.

** [CLARIFICATION August 15, 2012: An earlier version of this article mischaracterized Learning Ally, which also specializes in accessible textbooks for the dyslexic, visually impaired, and physically handicapped. MindShift regrets the error.]


For Dyslexic and Visually Impaired Students, a Free High-Tech Solution 15 August,2012MindShift

  • Greetings!  Great story about BookShare, but I think you gave Learning Ally short shrift.  Learning Ally was formerly known as Reading for the Blind and Dyslexic. When my daughter was in high school (2003-2007) it did indeed have all of her textbooks, except for two math textbooks.   The downside to RFBD then is that the books were read by volunteers; not all had voices that were pleasant to listen to.

    She is now in college; I believe her university uses a Kurzweil device to convert her assigned textbooks into a Word document, which her Apple device then reads. My daughter prefers the mechanical voice; she finds it doesn’t distract from the text.

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  • Pcohen

    Thank you for this info. I have a middle school age son who has dyslexia and Bookshare seems to be a great resource.  I was concerned we were going to “hit the wall” with the need to get more of his academic content through reading.  Between this and Learning Ally, I think
    he’ll be in good shape.

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  • guest

    A company called ABiSee has devices that can read books and convert printed material to text and speech through OCR. The camera takes a picture so fast and the text is almost instant.
    Its also great for mail and newspapers.

    • SS Clark

      I have heard of them. Zoom-ex and Eye-Pal connect to the computer and are used with software. They help access print that is not a book.

      Fast and accurate what more could you ask for !

  • PoppyG

    This is an interesting article, but I don’t think the view of Learning Ally and what they offer is correct.  I am a volunteer reader at Learning Ally, recording books on a weekly basis.  Every week I am working on recording a text book for them.  To imply that they have few to no text books in their catalog is certainly misleading.

  • I have what some might call a severely dyslexic child – if reading is on a scale of 1 – 10 out loud he is at a 4, but if comprehension is on that same scale we are talking 12 – dyslexia like cancer has all degrees is how I describe it.  For years it was me who read everything to him, until and IEP where an adviser happened to mention Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (now called Learning Ally).  

    He now gets all his books including text books through this organization.  Even Math books – he has a machine much like a cd player that can skip a page, book mark a page, he can insert and restart a book – it’s all possible.  Learning Ally Audio reading and Text books have changed our life and our home.  A child in fifth grade reading 2nd grade material is not a challenged or happy child but now reading at his level and beyond you have a child who is motivated and far more relaxed.  Perhaps you are unaware of the work Learning Ally does and a mere phone call to this organization will rest assure the wonderful work they do and the difference they make to many people – blind and dyslexic.  My son has worked with a digitized voice format and much prefers the real voice of a Reader – which has inflection, tone and emphasis.  A real voice gives him a broader context and syntax of a book.  

    I can recommend books for recording and I can donate books for recording if I want  – this is a marvelous non-profit volunteer based organization and unfortunately often over looked or not recognized by every day people.  I am very grateful to that person in an IEP nearly four years ago who in a passing comment mentioned this organization.  They and the many volunteers have opened up a world of books and education to my child – who now sees a much brighter world and has even been on the Honor Roll at school.  Something I would never have expected with the comments from teachers in the past that said “your son will never read well”, or parents who said “what would a private school want with a dyslexic child”.  I urge you to learn more about Learning Ally and write another blog on this wonderful organization.   

  • ThereseCO

    I am a mother of a 15 year old dyslexic daughter and we have spent many years researching the best technology to accommodate her learning difference. There are many new technologies that can help children with dyslexia but she has found Learning Ally to be the the most complete. The Learning Ally Ipad app is so user friendly and the human voice component is irreplaceable. The ipad app is free and there is a minimal annual fee. She is entering high school tomorrow. She has all of the hard copies of her books covered and ready to go but better yet she has all of the audioversion of her textbooks on her Learning Ally Ipad app bookshelf. Everytextbook was in
    the LA catalog. It would be too costly to order two copies of each book and to then have
    a computer generated voice be the end result. I hope the author can take the time to
    out a better alternative to Bookshare.

  • Tracey Smith

    Great resource! Yes, Learning Ally is great, but this is ANOTHER great addition to allow these students to access books. Let’s NOT waste our time with petty arguments about which is better when BOTH tools have a place in a dyslexic or visually impaired students learning toolbox.

  • Ben’sMOM

    My dyslexic son uses Bookshare and Kurzweil, they are two of the best and most flexible available. Learning Ally has been invaluable but the lack of ability to speed up and slow down the reading speed and the lack of tying it to the visual text as it reads has made this option not the best choice for his needs as a dyslexic student. Kurzweil will read anything and also captures the page as it looks to any other child, we like Kurzweil for textbooks that have pictures, charts or graphs, as they are displayed on screen and give him the full textbook experience. Bookshare we use and love for fiction reading and anything that is pure text, with out pictures. Many novels like the Hunger games, Harry Potter ect. Speeding up and slowing down the pace of the text being read can be done by both programs and he uses this feature depending on the subject and the objective of the reading task…just like we “normal readers” do when we are reading for different purposes. An additional feature of Kurzweil is that our schools use a huge amount of hand outs and these are scanned and read easily and quickly in the classroom. Anything that is in a paper or had out form can be read quickly by Kurzweil, this program is not free like bookshare but it is well worth the investment on so many levels.

    Our son uses both as well as keyboarding and Dragon Naturally Speaking to compose papers but that is another topic relating to the writing aspect that many dyslexics struggle with….if writing is a problem for your child look into these and ginger software.

    We are all so lucky that our kids are living in this day and age, quite different from even 10 years ago!

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  • Carly

    Can I ask, without being completely belligerent, why the phrase ‘print disablitity’ in the tile of this facebook post is in quotes? Do you, the kqed Facebook poster, believe dyslexia to not be a true neurological difference?
    Editing notes aside, is an amazing service, without which my dyslexic child could not consume books. Nine novels in as many days. Thank you, thank you for making an amazing difference in my kids’ life. Giving her confidence and bringing her to a social level even to that of her peers (she is currently reading popular fiction). Dyslexia is the worst twist of fate for a book loving kid like mine, and bookshare (along with her amazing tutor) has made it okay.

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