FL School - Paula Brannon

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Florida School for the Deaf and Blind Relies on Digital Accessible Books and Free Software for Multisensory Learning Experience

Paula Brannon, Assistive Technology (AT) Instructor for The Florida School for the Deaf and Blind relies on digital accessible books as part of her daily instruction for many reasons. Mrs. Brannon, who is visually impaired, is a big fan of multisensory learning. She is proud of her school’s mission to provide students with accessible books and credits Bookshare, the world’s largest online accessible library for individuals with qualified print disabilities, to make this goal a reality.

Mrs. Brannon knows firsthand what it’s like to carry boxes of cassette tapes from class to class and the frustration students feel as they try to keep up with their studies. “When I attended school, I never knew what page we were on or where the questions were located in a printed book,” she said. “It’s difficult for students using tapes to read along with sighted peers. I felt aggravated and thought I wasn’t as smart as others. I don’t want our students to have this experience. Digital files can level the learning field for those who are blind or visually impaired.”

The Florida School for the Deaf and Blind serves 200 students from the ages of 4 to 22 with print disabilities. These students require various assistive technologies and reading materials to be successful. This year, the school will access more digital books to accommodate a range of students’ needs; from reading for pleasure, like the new Twilight series, to reading required English literature, to studying a state textbook, like the one a 10th grader just downloaded from Bookshare called the Handbook of Writing, to study for the FCAT (Florida Comprehension Assessment Test).

“Students stand at my door complaining that our library ran out of copies of Twilight, a popular teen series about vampires,” Mrs. Brannon said. “Thanks to Bookshare, we have the option for digital text so that they can read the series together and chat about the story with friends. This is good resource for finding popular titles for teens.”

Mrs. Brannon encourages students who read Braille to also use a variety of assistive technology tools on the Bookshare website. These assistive technology applications are free for qualified students thanks to a funding award by the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) in the U.S. Department of Education. The software allows students to display text in an enlarged font or to read from a refreshable Braille display. Students can hear the audio read aloud, as they follow along in Braille. They can choose to download the Acapela voices (male or female synthesized speech) to hear the book’s content read in an engaging voice. “We know that students who are blind use their auditory senses to learn,” she said. “We teach Braille and print literacy, so students can underline a passage, bookmark a page or jot down a study note to prepare for a test.”

In 2004, Bookshare became a pet-project of this instructor. She worried that if her students did not have access to digital books and the tools and skills to use them, they would not be given the digital learning opportunities to succeed once they entered the workforce. She saw a growing trend in digital media to support people with disabilities and great potential in Bookshare to access thousands of digital books. “Fewer than five percent of books come in digital format today,” she said. “Now, our students access more books and utilize the technologies to read them.”

Mrs. Brannon can typically find the book she needs on Bookshare without having to scan the book in her production facility. The library holds over 50,000 books and periodicals. This saves her time and saves her school resources and dollars. “Bookshare is well-designed and fits easily within my school process,” she said. “Students get a digital book when they need it rather than wait for weeks. To have the latest teen titles keeps my students asking for more pleasure reading; that’s a great side benefit to learning.”

“For the record,” she said, “I’m a stickler about copyright laws. The Bookshare organization holds its staff, volunteers and partners to the highest standards to protect and maintain legally scanned books in its library. This makes me confident that we are handling the privilege given to individuals with print disabilities written in the Chafee Amendment.”

Bookshare meets the requirements of U.S. Copyright Law (17 U.S.C. § 121,) referred to as the Chafee Amendment, and its agreements with publishers and authors by requesting all members to provide proof of a qualified print disability. The organization protects publishers’ copyrights and guards against illegal sharing through a proprietary Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology. The Bookshare DRM technology fingerprints and maintains a record of every book downloaded to identify potential misuse and copyright infringement. Should illegal sharing or other misuse occur, Bookshare will take corrective action.

Recently, Mrs. Brannon became excited about Bookshare working with the NIMAC (The National Instructional Materials Access Center). The NIMAC is a central textbook repository established by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP). The NIMAC collects textbooks and educational materials from publishers in a standard electronic file format, called NIMAS (National Instructional Materials Accessible Standard). Mrs. Brannon relies on her state’s authorized user of the NIMAC, the Florida Instructional Materials Center, (FIMC-VI) to assign the NIMAS files to Bookshare where she can download the books. She sees the need for NIMAS files expanding this year.

On a personal note, in her quest to make access to digital books a benefit for all persons who are blind or visually impaired, Mrs. Brannon signed her husband up for an individual Bookshare membership. He is without sight and she thought this would be an excellent gift.

Bookshare offers a variety of membership options for schools, organizations, qualified students and individuals. To register visit the signup page.

This Bookshare Member Story was written by Valerie C. Chernek in July 2009