When he was six years old, Ben Cooper was diagnosed with dyslexia, a disability that can make it more difficult to interpret language and writing. For the next few years, his parents Robbi and Andrew Cooper took on the role of voicing all his reading materials.
“We used to read him all of his books,” said Robbi Cooper. “When you’re a young parent, that’s what you do, and then it was constant because he wasn’t reading on his own.”
By about third grade, the family found a technological solution: Bookshare, an online library, allowed Ben to download textbooks, novels and any other reading material he needed for school at no cost.
At the time, Apple’s first-generation iPad had debuted. The Coopers bought the device, which allowed Ben to consume reading material from Bookshare as text-to-speech sound and with text highlighted as he followed along.
It did not take very long for Robbi and Andrew to go from parents who read to their kid every night to parents who had to urge their son to go to bed because he was up too late reading on his own.
“When we finally got Bookshare, he didn’t need us anymore,” Robbi says ruefully. “It was a little hard for me at first.”
As digital-device technology evolved, so did Ben’s ability to control the way he reads books as well as the number of books available through Bookshare, from about 10,000-20,000 when he began using the service to more than 515,000 titles today.
Now a 10th grader at Austin High School, Ben can access Bookshare’s ebooks on his iPhone, on Chromebooks, or practically any computer or portable device with an Internet connection. Using a third-party app called Voice Dream, he’s able to have books read to him at a speed of about 300 words per minute (yes, he can absorb all that), adjusting the background, style of highlighting and the voice of what’s being read to him.
He recently read Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” for school, and in his free time he’s been taking in Robert Jordan’s fantasy epic. “I just finished re-reading the ‘Wheel of Time’ series,” Ben says.
“When you see the amount of information he’s able to absorb, it’s incredible,” Andrew Cooper says. “With the ability to access information online and audibly hear it, comprehending everything they’re saying, it just becomes a game changer.”
In the fall as an 11th grader, Ben will be taking dual-credit courses for Austin Community College. He’s become an advocate for those with dyslexia, speaking at conferences and for groups of educators and lawmakers, while his mother has become a leader in Decoding Dyslexia Texas.
A Texas connection
One of the most notable things about Bookshare, which was created by Palo Alto-based nonprofit Benetech, is that it’s not more well-known outside of special-education circles, or in some cases, even among schools with students who could benefit from the technology.
Bookshare is funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs and its enormous library is available for free to any U.S. student who qualifies for membership by having a print disability such as blindness, physical disabilities and learning disabilities.
About 450,000 U.S. students are members of Bookshare, 44,000 of them in Texas, according to the company. Texas in particularly has a strong connection with Benetech; The Accessible Books for Texas program, funded by the Texas Education Agency, provides money for three full-time coordinators. They work directly with teachers and others to get trained using Bookshare and to provide support for the online service.
Matt Hattoon, an outreach coordinator for Benetech, spent President’s Day holding a training session for Del Valle ISD teachers on how to set up accounts, download ebooks, and how to request books that aren’t already available in Bookshare’s library.
Because Texas is such an important client for Benetech, materials requested in the state, particularly textbooks, are high priority for scanning. In many cases, the company is able to obtain the original text from a publisher, allowing it to bypass potential scanning errors and to get the materials in an accessible format more quickly.
That format could be large-print digital text, braille, audio, or a non-copy-protected digital book that can be pulled up on apps with advanced accessibility features.
At the training session, Hattoon explains the difference between so-called “Demo” books (those in the public domain, available to everyone), and other Bookshare titles such as John Green’s popular “The Fault in Our Stars,” only available to those with print disabilities.
Hattoon said he’s grateful the Texas Education Agency has funded the program.
“It’s providing boots-on-the ground training for any public school. We don’t have that arrangement in any other state,” he said. “TEA has done right. Just the fact that a disabled student can read exactly the same material at the same time, in the same environment, is enormous.”
A former dyslexia specialist, Hattoon says that before technology such as Bookshare, schools typically had the option of setting up a reading-disabled student with a “buddy reader” student assistant, or sending the student to a content-mastery room, isolating them from the classroom.
“Bookshare has allowed those students to be back in the classroom,” Hattoon said.
Benetech, the parent company, has about 75 employees, 50 of them devoted to working on Bookshare.
It was founded by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Jim Fruchterman, who helped pioneer character-recognition technology at a company called Calera Recognition Systems in the 1980s.
Christine K. Jones, a senior education program manager at Benetech, says that Bookshare is the beneficiary of several different technology trends and changes in publishing and several government policies that have made it possible.
For instance, Bookshare works with NIMAC, the National Instructional Materials Access Center, a federally funded national repository of accessible books that was set up in 2004. In Texas, publishers are required to send a copy of their books to NIMAC when the state adopts new materials.
“We can get that same textbook through the NIMAC and make it available to students in Texas,” Jones said.
Sometimes, those digital files require more conversion to make it ready for students. But, Jones said, “We’ll make sure any book a student needs, we’ll get it from the publisher.”
Ben Cooper says he’s been able to get books added to Bookshare within a few days of a teacher’s request, though Jones says it can sometimes take a few months if a book must be manually scanned and then cleaned up for use.
The ubiquity of digital devices such as smartphones, tablets and ever-cheaper laptops has made Bookshare materials easier to access on the go. And even one complaint Jones says she’s heard about Bookshare is on its way to being solved.
“One of the things people have not liked about Bookshare is getting used to the text-to-speech voice,” she said. “We think that’s going to become a moot point because so many of the voices are getting better and kids are growing up used to Siri, Alexa, and other tools they have around them.”
Bookshare is also available as a subscription service for $50 a year, plus a $25 setup fee. Texas senior citizens with print disabilities also have access to Benetech’s outreach coordinators through funding from the Consumer Technology Association.
Ben’s mother Robbi Cooper says she’s continually surprised in her volunteer work that there are still students who could benefit from Bookshare, but don’t know it exists.
“We’re always sort of floored by how many students don’t have access,” she said. “Either the schools don’t know about it or its just not high up enough on their radar to promote it for students. When Ben speaks about it at conference, people are just wowed. It’s free and it’s effective.”
Robbi Cooper added, “It has changed the trajectory of Ben’s life.”