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A New E-Book Service for Disabled Students

September 1 2009 | by


The American Association of Publishers launched a new online service that will give college students with print disabilities, such as blindness or dyslexia, easier access to alternative forms of textbooks.

AccessText is a new national database that allows participating U.S. colleges and universities to share and access formatted electronic files from eight major college textbook publishers — without having to seek the publisher’s permission for each and every book.

The database is funded by and populated with textbooks from Bedford/St. Martin’s, Cengage Learning, CQ Press, John Wiley & Sons, McGraw-Hill Education and Pearson, Reed Elsevier, and W.W. Norton, who create more than 90 percent of all college textbooks. All of the publishers are members of the AAP, a trade association comprising 174 publishing companies.

Traditionally, publishers have been wary of digital book efforts, even for the disabled, arguing that these newer forms are copyrighted — and must be paid for. For instance, in April advocates from the blind community were furious at publishers who wanted to disable the audio feature on Amazon’s Kindle, which some blind people use to listen to books.

The AAP is hoping that, with the new database, it can quell the digital book debate while minimizing demand for state “e-text laws” that would require publishers to hand over access to disabled students. “AAP and textbook publishers worked for four years to create the AccessText network. We did it without even one government regulation, one piece of legislation or one dollar of taxpayer money,” says Bruce Hildebrand, executive director for higher education at the Association of American Publishers.

Both two-year and four-year institutions are already participating in AccessText. Members receive free services the first year, and pay a yearly fee of $375 to $500 thereafter, depending on the size of the institution. More than 500 members have signed up for the service so far, including Stanford University, the University of New Mexico, Holy Cross, and the University of San Francisco.

The books can be downloaded in DOC, PDF, RTF, TEX and XML formats through the AccessText Network, and should arrive within 10 days. The school can then convert the file to any other format a student needs, such as DAISY, Braille, audio or large print. Publishers will also work to convert some of the more often requested books.

Starting next year, participating schools will be able to exchange files with other AccessText members in multiple formats, such as DAISY, through the network, with a rating system to help determine the quality of the title conversion.

For higher institutions, this is the first network of its kind. Still, the concept isn’t new. Print-disabled students in grades K-12 already get some of their digital books from non-profit or government organizations, including Bookshare and Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic. A part of U.S. Copyright Law called the Chafee Amendment allows these organizations to provide K-12 disabled students with free digital books. Post-secondary institutions are currently exempt from these regulations.

Bookshare, which is funded in part by the Dept. of Education, now has several K-12 textbook publishing partners, as well as a handful of smaller higher education publishers, including Townsend Press, The Brookings Institution Press, the University of Chicago Press, New York University Press and others.

College students who need alternative-format textbooks should contact their school’s disability-services department to see if the school is an AccessText or Bookshare member (students can also sign up for Bookshare directly.) Students must meet the qualification of having a print-related disability in order to receive free books.

By Suzanne Robitaille

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