Connecticut Assistive Technology Guidelines - Section 1: For Ages 3-21

Formats for Accessible Instructional Media

The proliferation of the availability of e-text and the devices that can be used to read the text have brought with it a fair amount of confusion: what options are available; which students are eligible for accessible instructional material; and what resources are the best match between available options and learner needs?

Historically, the field of AT has long struggled to make print materials accessible to our students. Technology has come a long way from the days of arduously scanning page after page in order to create electronic text for our students with print disabilities. Today, federal funding supports programs that are designed to help provide electronic text in flexible formats that meet the needs of diverse learners. This section will examine the resources available for free to students with print disabilities through Bookshare, an online library of e-text resources; Learning Ally, a library of audio resources; and the National Library Services for the Blind and Dyslexic. Teams can refer to the AIM Navigator for assistance to determine accessible instruction media needs.


In October 2007, Bookshare received a $32 million, five-year award from the U.S. Department of Education to significantly expand the availability of accessible digital books and software for reading those books. Bookshare offers digital books produced from NIMAS source files and delivers them to students in the BRF (Braille Ready File) and DAISY (Digital Accessibility Information System) standard for Digital Talking Books. School districts create an organizational membership in which they identify sponsors (faculty and staff eligible to download books through the organizational account) and members (students who are print disabled and thus able to access materials through Bookshare).

  • Membership procedures and qualifications for print disability can be found on the Bookshare Web site.

Please note that not all students who qualify for special education or 504 services qualify for Bookshare membership. Once a student is a member through the school’s account, the student can receive a free home membership by completing the forms available on the Web site. Besides providing access to the instructional materials made available through the NIMAS files, Bookshare provides an electronic library of over 90,000 books, newspapers, and magazines. NIMAS materials are available only through the school’s account, not through a home membership.

To better understand the nature of the digital talking books, the DAISY files available through Bookshare, it is helpful to understand electronic text or e-text. Simply put, it is the electronic presentation of print materials. Reading the daily news from a Web site rather than the paper delivered to your doorstep is an example of e-text. Besides providing the information as printed words on paper do, e-text affords the possibility of easily changing the presentation format and using digitized speech to hear the text read to meet the needs of persons with print disabilities.

Bookshare offers three options and two voices for reading the DAISY files; two options are available to members for a free download from the Bookshare Web site. One resource, the VictorReader Soft Bookshare edition by Humanware, is designed for use by people who are screen reader users. The other, READ: Outloud Bookshare Edition by Don Johnston, is designed specifically for people with learning disabilities. Read: Outloud Bookshare Edition reads the electronic materials and allows changes in the presentation of the format, such as providing a change in font size and/or text and background color. The third option is applications for mobile devices such as Read2Go, an app for the iPad that is available for purchase from iTunes. This option is similar to Read: OutLoud Bookshare Edition in the presentation of the text. These resources pair the presentation of the electronic text with digitized audio output.

The files available in Braille Refreshable Format are designed for use with Braille embossers and refreshable Braille devices. Hard copies of Braille selections are available upon request through a partnership with other resources.

Learning Ally (formerly Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic [RFB&D])

Learning Ally, formerly Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D), a nonprofit volunteer organization, is the nation’s largest educational lending-library serving people who cannot effectively read standard print because of visual impairment, dyslexia, or other physical disability. Learning Ally boasts the largest collection of accessible textbooks and educational materials. Learning Ally’s format differs from the digital talking books available through Bookshare: Learning Ally files are audio files only and do not include a representation of the printed word.

Memberships to Learning Ally are available for individuals, families, and schools. If an individual has been certified as having a print disability through Bookshare, that certification meets the requirements for membership through Learning Ally. Audio files available through Learning Ally may be recorded narration, in the case of literature or pre-NIMAS text and educational materials. Materials produced from DAISY file sets use synthesized speech. The navigable DAISY format files do contain audio description of the illustrations, charts, graphs, etc., contained in the print version of the materials.

As of this printing, Learning Ally files can be obtained in four distinct audiobook formats: Downloadable DAISY AudioPlus, DAISY CD AudioPlus, Windows Media Audio Downloadable Audio Access, and a Learning Ally app for the iPad that is available from iTunes. In order to access either of the DAISY formats, an additional purchase of specialized DAISY hardware and/or software is required.

National Library Services for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS)

NLS is a free program designed to provide Braille and audio materials to persons with qualifying disabilities who are residents of the United States. Besides providing materials to persons whose visual acuity is 20/200 in the better eye with corrective lenses or whose visual field has an angular distance of no greater than 20 degrees, that person whose physical disability prevents accessing standard print materials or those with a reading disability resulting from organic dysfunction may be eligible.

Audio materials through NLS require the use of specialized playback equipment available for loan to qualifying individuals or to institutions who serve persons who are blind and/or physically handicapped, including schools serving this population. In the case of public and private schools, students should be certified on an individual basis and should receive the materials directly for their exclusive use.

In 2008, NLS began its transition from cassette-based audio materials to digital talking books produced according to the National Information Standards Organization standard, which was approved by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) as ANSI/NISO Z39.86-2002., shipping 650 titles in a new digital book format and anticipated the addition of 2,000 new titles each year from 2009 through 2013. As with the earlier cassette-based audio materials, specialized players continue to be required.

In Connecticut, materials from NLS are available through the State Education and Resource Center (SERC) Library.

Matching Features to Student Needs

As with all AT, it is important to match the student’s needs with the features available from the resources discussed. For example, a student who has difficulty paying attention may need the visual presentation of the text with highlighting as it is read, whereas a student with significant visual impairment may rely solely on the audio output to access the material.

Another aspect of accessibility and feature match is the portability of the materials in the accessible formats. A variety of commercially available devices, such as the Intel Reader and Classmate form Humanware, allow for portable options to access Bookshare, Learning Ally, and DAISY files. And the WMA (Windows Media Audio) files can be played on MP3 players that have Digital Rights Management to play the encrypted files.

Looking to the Future

The applications that support e-text, with its universal design for learning potential, are rapidly advancing. This holds with it the promise of the use of mainstream tools, such as the iPad and iPod, as well as electronic readers such as the Kindle and Nook, for accessing print materials for all learners with the advancement of technology.

The future holds the promise of universal design for tools to assist the learning of all students. Access to AT will enable students with disabilities to participate and make progress in general education and be college and career ready. It will allow them to become as independent as possible, making a lasting difference in their own lives, freeing them to move forward with fewer boundaries and providing a gateway to greater opportunity.