VISION Literacy Update: Textbooks for Blind Students "Come
by Lois Baker, University at Buffalo Reporter, February
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textbook for primary or secondary school students is a robust
learning tool rich with photographs, illustrations, charts,
maps-visual images that bring the words to life.
Textbooks for blind or visually impaired students are
considerably less dynamic. A full book may comprise as many as
15-20 bound volumes.
All of the helpful graphic components are useless unless the
teacher describes them. Locating a highlighted vocabulary word
is cumbersome and difficult.
The learning status quo for these students may be changing as
the result of a project completed by assistive technology
experts at UB.
With $400,000 in funding from the U.S. Department of Education,
Kathleen A. Beaver, Christine Oddo and Sumana Silverheels spent
the past two years developing a prototype social-studies
electronic textbook-more precisely, 13 social-studies prototype
electronic textbooks and 10 supplements for grades 2 through
10-that include text, as well as descriptions of all graphic
The electronic files are designed for use with an ingenious,
classroom-friendly device called a portable refreshable Braille
note-taker. The device converts electronic text into speech and
into Braille that is "refreshed:" produced as a ticker-tape-like
continuous stream that is created by moveable pins on a
keyboard, which the fingers read the way the eye would track
words across a page. The student can listen to the textbook or
read it in Braille.
The new electronic textbooks will be available for use in
classrooms across the nation this spring.
"No other textbook out there for visually impaired students has
been modified to this extent," said Beaver, associate director
of the Center for Assistive Technology in the School of Public
Health and Health Professions and project director of the
Instant Access to Braille project.
"These are the only social studies textbooks available to blind
students across the country that have all picture and map
descriptions included," she said. "They also are the only ones
designed to take full advantage of a portable note-taking
device, where elements such as time lines, tables, bulleted
lists, graphs and charts, highlighted vocabulary words, multiple
choice and fill-in-the-blank chapter summary questions work
equally well for output of both speech and refreshable Braille.
"And because the file is electronic," Beaver added, "students
can search for information, such as vocabulary words, instead of
skimming through page after page of hard-copy Braille. They also
can place electronic 'bookmarks' within the text to quickly
locate important material."
Beaver and her colleagues developed the electronic textbooks
with the aid of 15 blind students in grades 2 to 10. Each
student received a BrailleNote, a personal note taker with
refreshable Braille developed by Pulse Data International to
test at home and in the classroom.
The students' response was enthusiastic. "For the first time
ever, I have been able to do my social studies homework
independently, without asking my mom to describe the maps and
pictures to me or have her help me find answers within the
text," said one ninth grader.
Converting the words into an electronic format was easy, if time
consuming. Beaver and colleagues dismantled each student's
social studies book and scanned the pages into a computer.
Recreating the graphic images was not as simple. Beaver and
colleagues used their knowledge from a workshop on describing
art for the visually impaired to devise descriptions of every
graphic image in the printed book, each carefully worded to
create a vivid picture in the mind's eye.
The colorful photo of an ancient Aztec mask in the 8th grade
social studies textbook "Creating America," for example, comes
alive for a blind student through these words:
There is a photograph on this page of a primitive facemask made
out of blue mosaic tiles. Some of the small blue tiles are
missing. The mask has big white eyes with dark pupils, a broad
nose and a wide mouth with large, square, white teeth.
A picture isn't necessarily worth 1,000 words, it turns out.
Sometimes just six suffice.
In "Creating America" alone, there are 394 photographs, 130
graphic organizers (visual tools such as flow charts and Venn
diagrams that define patterns and relationships within the
data), 115 historical maps, 42 charts, 32 timelines, 28 diagrams
and 25 graphs. Beaver and her team created word pictures for
every one, plus for graphic elements in 14 additional textbooks.
They currently are finalizing the references and
acknowledgements. The textbooks will be stored as zipped files
at the American Printing House for the Blind in Louisville, Ky.
"Each state has one or more authorized entities, usually someone
in the state education department, who can acquire the textbook
for eligible students in that state," said Beaver. "The file
then can be mailed or emailed to the teacher working with that
student. Once the file is unzipped, it can be copied to a
standard flash disk card or floppy disk and imported into the
Electronic textbooks have the potential to provide all students
access to the full vigor of instructional materials, Beaver
stated. "As electronic textbooks become more available,
electronic note takers with refreshable Braille not only will
give students the freedom to study and learn independently, they
will provide a cost-effective alternative to hard-copy Braille
Beaver and her colleagues hope to use the textbook project to
conduct research into the effect of the use of refreshable
Braille on Braille literacy.
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