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New Program Seeks to Make Alternative Textbooks for Visually Impaired Students Available Faster

While music-recording companies have been fighting people who illegally share songs, book publishers are looking to expand file-sharing for college students with print-related disabilities.

AccessText, a new service that rolled out a beta version this week, has created an online database that makes it simpler for disability-student services at colleges to track down alternative forms of course materials from book publishers. When electronic versions don’t exist for a particular book, the college would get permission to scan the pages so a student could either make the font larger, or use other text-to-speech or refreshable Braille reading devices.

Bruce Hildebrand, executive director for higher education at the Association of American Publishers, says the new service will maximize resources and get students materials faster.

“The publishers have got billions of dollars worth of content. The DSS offices are trying to get that out as quickly as possible, generally with very, very tight budgets and small staffs, and the students obviously need to get it in as timely a fashion as possible, so they’re not behind,” he says.

While the program is in its beta stage until next year, 367 offices are testing it free of charge, and eight publishers that are part of the association are footing the bill. When AccessText goes live in July 2010, members will pay between $375 and $500, on a sliding scale based on the institution’s size. At that point, Mr. Hildebrand hopes that colleges will be able to share materials with other approved institutions, with permission, instead of several schools duplicating efforts by scanning books that another member may already have.

Dawn V. Adams, digital-media-accessibility specialist at the Alternative Media Access Center at the University of Georgia, has been the first person to try out AccessText. With the new program, she says she is able to get books easier than she has in the past, and the turnaround for receiving an answer from a book publisher is as fast as before, if not faster.

“It’s streamlining the work that I do,” says Ms. Adams, who serves more than 877 students throughout the University System of Georgia. “All I have to do is go to one Web site for five different publishers and click a few buttons. It’s a really big timesaver.”

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