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Feds Give $1.1-Million for E-Textbooks for Vision-Impaired Students

A pilot program to improve access to e-textbooks for students with disabilities that make it hard for them to read print got a $1.1-million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the program announced today.

The Student E-rent Pilot Project, or STEPP, a public-private partnership, will digitally format and distribute digital versions of textbooks for use by students with disabilities like blindness and dyslexia. Presently, most of these students have to rely on limited college resources to access these books, but in this program, books will be electronically reformatted so that they can be read out loud by computers or e-book readers in a way that makes sense to students. The grant will help the project add 1,000 books, including 80 percent of the best-selling textbooks on college campuses.

The partnership is being co-sponsored by digital textbook provider CourseSmart along with the Alternative Media Access Center of the University System of Georgia, and the AccessText Network, a nonprofit organization working with disabled student-services offices on campuses across the country.

Typically, college students who have trouble with standard book formats could only turn to their disabled student-services offices to have textbooks translated into braille or scanned with rudimentary text-to-speech computer software. “That process is time consuming and costly,” said access center director Christopher Lee. “The staff basically have to be publishers.”

With more advanced technology, CourseSmart—a joint venture supported by several major textbook publishers—and other developers are digitally reformatting hundreds of books that can be rented online at a much lower cost to the students and the institutions. Tom Hadfield, chief technology officer for CourseSmart, estimates that renting e-textbooks will save students up to 50 percent on their course material. “Rental is a big movement in the higher-ed course-material fields,” but without STEPP’s reformatting efforts, “renting textbooks excludes people with textual disabilities,” he said.

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