2003 Conference Proceedings

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Jeffrey C. Senge, M.S.
Information & Computer Access Program Coordinator
California State University, Fullerton
Email: jsenge@fullerton.edu

Jim Fruchterman
Email: jim@benetech.org


A discussion of different types of ebooks, their advantages and disadvantages, plus an overview of important efforts to move us towards even greater access.


Ebooks have tremendous potential for increasing access to print material for students with disabilities. The term "ebooks" includes many different types of digital books. We will discuss the major types of digital books available today and the advantages and disadvantages of these different types. Because today's access doesn't fulfill the potential of ebooks to serve the needs of students, we'll provide an overview of some of the efforts to move us towards greater access.

Advantages of Ebooks

The advantages of ebooks lie in the flexibility of the digital format and the potential for easy navigation throughout the book.

Once a book is in a digital format it can be accessed in many different ways. For example, an etext document can be accessed with a screen reader, viewed in large print, output into digital Braille, or displayed on the screen with words highlighted as they are read aloud in synthetic speech for somebody with a learning disability.

There can be dramatic improvements in the navigation capability of a book over other methods of access such as cassette tape. With cassette, you have play, fast forward, rewind and stop. It is difficult to go to a particular page or chapter as for a reading assignment for a class. Though navigation is improved with all digital formats, especially with the new DAISY formats, this navigation capability is built right into ebooks: navigation by page, chapter, use of table of contents, bookmarking pages or sections, and taking notes in the book. (DEMO of audio book)

Different Types of Ebooks

Digital Braille
Books in a Braille format can either be sent to an embosser or directly read with a refreshable Braille device. These can be created from Etext using translation software, though this may still require editing to ensure proper Braille formatting.

The availability of software programs to translate text files into digital Braille has increased this access. Sites like Bookshare.org and NLS Web-Braille offer Braille formatted files for download to qualifying individuals.

Digital Audio
Digital audio books contain only pre-recorded audio, typically a human narration of the book. Recently, digital audio books have become available in the U.S. These can be accessed on a computer with special reader software or using a specialized hardware player. The U.S. leader in digital audio is RFB&D, who launched their digital audio books last fall, delivering primarily textbooks in the DAISY format in pre-recorded human speech.

Audible.com is a mainstream producer of narrated audio books that can be downloaded in digital audio format and are accessible by people with disabilities.

Mainstream Ebooks
Mainstream ebooks, typically best-sellers, can be ordered from commercial sources such as Amazon.com or Audible.com that are not specifically designed for people with disabilities. These books are often (but unfortunately not always) accessible to people with disabilities. They usually require a specialized player that can be downloaded or purchased from the ebook provider.

Ebook players from producers like Adobe and Microsoft are accessible, although some ebooks can have text-to-speech access turned off. It is usually not possible to find out before purchasing such a book whether this is the case, making it difficult for people who need speech access.

Some textbooks also come with a CD-rom that has a digital version of the book. Be aware that this digital version does not always have the same content as the textbook.

These books that contain the full text of a book, but no pre-recorded audio. Can be created by scanning or with files received from publishers. Can be accessed using synthetic speech programs, refreshable Braille displays, screen magnifiers, or large print.

Finding more efficient ways of producing electronic textbooks and distributing them are two challenges faced by today's postsecondary institutions. For the most part, we are still in the horse and buggy days of e-text production in postsecondary education. While it is true we have extremely advanced technologies at our fingertips to scan books into text files, these scanned text files require a tremendous amount of effort to render them into structured e-text documents.

Structure is just as critical to e-text documents as it is to print on paper versions of the same material. An electronic textbook with page numbers, heading levels, paragraph markers, lists, tables, footnotes, and so forth is necessary for effectively and efficiently navigating the information being presented. These are the types of structural elements that must be inserted by hand into the raw electronic files whether from scanned material or from publisher's files to render the e-text files useful to the student.

While progress is being made toward obtaining electronic files directly from publishers, most publishers' electronic files require nearly as much and sometimes more effort to render them into structured e-text than scanned files of the same material because they are created by using extraction software programs which generally do not include structural elements in the resulting e-text files.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act specify communications with persons with disabilities must be as effective as communications with others. Since postsecondary institutions generally must comply with these requirements throughout the range of their programs, services, and activities, providing accurate and structured e-text rather than unstructured electronic files is a matter of responsibility. This is a costly proposition and one many postsecondary institutions are not currently providing.

We are at a point in the evolution of e-text in postsecondary education where we could be doing better and should focus our collective energy on finally tackling the challenges of producing structured e-text and making it widely available to those who need it in a timely manner. Some postsecondary education systems such as the California Community Colleges have established their own e-text exchange program to share within their own system. A national sharing and distribution network would have even more reach. [JRF1]

Given the frequency of new edition releases of textbooks in the postsecondary market, spreading a current edition of a textbook as far and wide as possible makes practical sense. With a shelf life of two to three years, most textbooks are out of date relatively quickly. When you combine this fact with the low likelihood of other students needing this same exact book in your institution before the next edition comes out, sharing it widely just makes good sense. Your institution just might be able to use another e-text from another institution that has already born the cost of rendering the structured electronic files and is willing to share it. Thus saving your institution's resources for producing additional e-text materials. Following this course would not only maximize the investment of producing the structured e-text but would improve the other problem related to e-text most postsecondary institutions face, that of providing timely access. We urge schools that are creating etext files to share them through Bookshare.org to help address this need.

Where We Could Be...

How to increase access to ebooks

Get books from existing sources

Create your own books

Share etext through Bookshare.org

Longer term approaches

Legislation formulated with broad stakeholder involvement
Many different states have laws outlining requirements for publishers to provide files for students with disabilities, such as California's AB-422 for post-secondary textbooks. Also, there is a pending bill [will update prior to March presentation] in Congress, the Instructional Materials Accessibility Act, that aims to create a central repository for publishers to submit books to, helping all students, while requiring publishers to respond to only one request. This bill would only apply to K-12 textbooks.

These laws work best when they have been formulated with careful involvement of all stakeholders: publishers, authors, disability groups, educators, and parent and student advocates.

Work directly with publishers
There are efforts to work with publishers outside of the legal arena to change their production processes to enable output of files that are completely accessible by people with all types of disabilities. The DAISY Consortium has taken the lead in this effort, and is working with the OpenEbook Forum to work with publishers as they move their production processes towards the ebook format. The goal is to ensure not only that mainstream ebooks are fully accessible, but to ensure that any newly published book can easily be made available in an accessible format. Publishers could sell books in these accessible formats, taking what is currently a costly process (responding to individual request for alternative format material) to something that generates revenue (albeit small).


There are many sources of ebooks available today, but the need isn't being met. It will take a combination of focus on long-term solutions, and an increase in access through existing sources to help meet this need.

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