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Making textbooks accessible to all

ASU student workers innovate ways to make textbooks accessible to everyone.
Making education accessible to all.
March 9, 2016

ASU staff and students innovate solutions for blind, visually impaired students at Alternative Format lab

A typical course at Arizona State University will require a student to read thousands and thousands of words — usually printed in ink on paper.

Those printed words are not available to blind or visually impaired students. So ASU has a way to transform textbooks and other class materials into an accessible format.

Sometimes the words become spoken, heard on an e-text reader.

Some letters are enlarged until they are as big as your hand.

Others become tactile, as raised dots or symbols on paper that can be touched.

A few of these methods are brilliant — such as when a student worker created a tactile version of the Arabic alphabet for a blind student who doesn’t use Braille.

Other approaches are more basic, like physically chopping up a textbook so its pages can be scanned.

All of it is done by the student workers in the Alternative Format ServicesThe lab, in Matthews Center, is part of ASU’s Disability Resource Center, which has a presence on all four campuses. lab, where they convert more than 700 books every semester, often under great time pressure.

About 180 students use the lab’s services, and not all of the students have visual impairments. Some have acquired brain injuries, ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, dyslexia or other physical or psychiatric disabilities that make reading words on paper a challenge.

Jessicah Newton, who is blind, is a specialist in the lab. When she was a student at ASU in the early 2000sNewton earned her degree in 2005., she had all her class materials converted to Braille. Now she collaborates with a staff of about 25 student workers to help the current generation of students.

“The work they do here really can mean the difference between a student passing and a student failing,” she said. “It is that important.”

Student Mattie Leavitt and specialist Jessicah Newton

Mattie Leavitt (center), a manufacturing engineering major and the e-text team leader in the Alternative Format Services lab, works with specialist Jessicah Newton, who supervises the student workers. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Chopping up books

It all starts in the bookstore.

Just like every other student, those who need their textbooks converted into accessible information have to buy the books, then turn them over the Alternative Format Services lab at the start of the semester, according to Chad Price, director of ASU’s Disability Resource Center.

Some textbooks take only a few days to be "translated," but others can take weeks. Some are completed all at once; others are produced in chunks. Either way, the lab's staff is constantly working under pressure to keep up.

Some publishers provide books in a digital format, usually a pdf, which still is inaccessible to a visually impaired person. Those files have to be converted. 

Books that aren’t available digitally are chopped. Literally. A device in Hayden Library called a “guillotine” slices the binding off before the pages are separated and scanned so the text can converted into an e-reader format or into Braille. The books are then reboundA rebound book with spiral bindingThe rebound books are returned to the student. .

And that’s just the words.

If there are photographs, figures or tables, those must also be converted. Some are made into tactile form; others are verbally described by the staffers.

“If you think of a flowchart, visually, it’s complicated. One student staffer came up with a way to demonstrate it linearly,” Price said. “They’re being innovativeRegular textbooks become enormous when printed out in Braille — usually several volumes. One student invented a tactile way for blind or visually impaired students to quickly sort the volumes. in their own way.”

Math and science texts are particularly challenging, and many of the student workers are engineering grad students, who not only grasp the complicated concepts but also can think of new ways to translate the information.

Newton said that a student recently graduated with a degree in molecular biology and had her textbooks converted to BrailleJessicah Newton reads an embossed pageBraille is a system of raised dots that allows blind people to read and write tactilely. Named for its inventor, Louis Jean-Philippe Braille, the Braille code is the universally accepted method of reading and writing for the blind..

“I thought I was going to lose my mind,” said Newton, who reviews all of the materials the staff converts.

“When Braille was created, even when math Braille was created in 1972, nobody anticipated the advances in sciences like DNA. We almost had to create her books from scratch.”

Newton helped to develop the process for doing tactile diagrams, which weren’t even provided when she was a student. One way to do it is to print complicated graphics onto heat-encapsulated paper, which is then run through a machine dubbed “the toaster,” which heats the paper and raises the ink so the image can be felt. Images also can be embossed.

Melody Taylor, a linguistics major, is now in her fourth semester of studying Arabic and uses textbooks converted through a novel approach by the lab. Taylor is blind and doesn’t use Braille, so the characters had to be accessible to her another way.

Micah Kyler, a student worker in the lab, began playing with the idea of making the characters themselves tactile. He recoded a keyboard to type the Arabic characters.

“The first semester we did a lot of trial and error, and if the letters were too thick, it was harder for me to get the whole character beneath my fingers,” said Taylor.

If the letters were too thin, they couldn’t be reproduced in the embosser.

"Finally we conquered it," said Taylor, who understands all the work that goes into converting a text. She works as a proofreaderThe conversion program will translate the text literally. For example, the e-reader will say “dollar sign forty” and Taylor must change it to say “forty dollars.” in the lab, spending many hours reviewing material that's formatted for an e-text reader.

A fresh start

Students must register with the Disability Resource Center to access Braille conversion, sign language interpreters, note takers, golf-cart transportation, testing accommodations or any of the other services provided.

Price said that about 2,500 students register every year — fewer than would be expected for a university with 85,000 students. The 2012 U.S. Census found that 19 percent of Americans have a disability.

Registered students can borrow equipment including e-text readers, text-enlargement devices, audio players and optical microscopes with enlargers. There’s also a proctored testing center for students who are permitted to have extended time or adaptive equipment during exams. It includes three “whisper rooms,” essentially soundproof booths for students who must eliminate all distractions. A federally funded program for some Disability Resource Center clients called TRIO offers tutoring and classes in study skills and time management. Center staff also work with faculty to accommodate students who need services.

Program coordinator Kandi Martinez

Program coordinator Kandi Martinez feeds a book into the "guillotine" machine in Hayden Library, which chops the binding off so the book can be scanned and converted in the Alternative Format Services lab. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

So with the latest technology and most innovative services provided, why do so few students register with the Disability Resource Center?

The answer is an age-old reason.

“They feel there’s a stigma associated with disability,” Price said. “They don’t want to self-identify.”

The transition from high school to college is a crucial time.

“They may have been pulled out of class or identified in high school as someone with a disability and now they want a fresh start,” Price said.

“It’s usually their sophomore or junior year that they come here and say ‘I’m struggling.’ "

Improving access to class materials is one way to keep students in college classes, which is a goal at ASU. According to the U.S. Census, 13 percent of adults with a disability have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with 32 percent of non-disabled adults.

And Price said the resource center empowers students beyond academics.

“We talk to students about the importance of being able to self-advocate, self-identify and understand their abilities enough to articulate what their needs are.”

Melody Taylor, a linguistics major and proofreader in the lab

Melody Taylor, a linguistics major and a proofreader in the Alternative Formats lab, checks content that has been converted for use on an e-text reader. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

A new perspective

Newton is often the first blind adult the student workers have talked to.

“Most are shy when they start. They don’t want to offend,” Newton said. “We use a lot of humor. I tell them I’m afraid of the dark.”

Mattie Leavitt, a manufacturing engineering major, is the e-text team leader in the lab. She said she's glad the staff is able to tailor the conversions to each student's needs.

“I have a sister with special needs so it’s really dear to my heart to produce materials that somebody wouldn't be able to get otherwise,” Leavitt said.

Newton said the varying perspectives are key to the lab’s success.

“They’ll start asking questions and observe me trying to solve a problem with text and then someone will come up with an idea. It’s often something that won’t occur to me because I can’t see it,” she said.

She teaches them to process the way she would — by touching and listening.

“We all have a way of looking at things and all of us, me included, get to say, ‘I never thought of it from that point of view.’ ”

Top photo: Industrial engineering graduate student Sri Kiran Potluri takes pages to scan at the Alternative Format Services lab in Matthews Center. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now. Video by Ken Fagan/ASU Now.

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News


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Introducing Justin Winters

Students need look no further than their own university for writing inspiration.
ASU prof: When you're passionate about something, you just find the time.
March 9, 2016

How a Hollywood insider made his way to ASU — and what's in store for his students

The hallway on the sixth floor of the G. Homer Durham Language and Literature building looks more like a movie theater than a place of academia. The walls are lined with posters that run the gamut of cinematic achievement, from blockbusters like “Jaws” and “Scarface” to lesser-known indies like “City of God.”

It must make Justin Winters feel right at home. The newly minted faculty associate in ASU’s film and media studies programThe film and media studies program at ASU is run by the Department of English, an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. only recently put down permanent roots in the Valley. Before that, he was commuting between his home in Phoenix and an apartment in Los Angeles, where he has spent more than a decade establishing a career in the entertainment industry. During that time, he worked with such notables as “Hurt Locker” director Kathryn Bigelow and writer of the megahit “Pirates of the Caribbean,” Stuart Beattie.

Now, he’s sharing that invaluable experience with students at ASU, all while continuing to make a name for himself in the business. This summer, Winter’s first film, “Killing Winston Jones” will make its debut in theaters. Starring Richard Dreyfuss as a retired gym teacher hell-bent on leaving a legacy, it’s drawing comparisons to Wes Anderson’s “The Royal Tenenbaums,” and Winter couldn’t be more pleased.

“[Wes Anderson] and his work have always been an inspiration,” said the screenwriter and producer.

Winter also has plenty in the works for TV, including a show he recently sold to Comedy CentralWinters’ as-yet untitled project with Comedy Central is an unscripted comedy, co-created and produced with Steve Frech. It will feature host Jessimae Peluso in search of the most outrageous competitions — from outhouse racing to tuna-fish tossing to the world series of beer pong., and even a podcast — although he maintains his true wheelhouse is drama and dark comedies. Later this semester, he’ll be bringing out the director of his upcoming film and star of such films as “Dodgeball” and “Avatar,” Joel David Moore, for a Q&A session with his students.

“One of the things I’m trying to do is keep these students excited about the craft and what they’re studying. So I’m trying to bring a lot of people from the industry here for my classes,” said Winters.

ASU Now sat down with Winters — one of those “industry folks” himself — for a Q&A.

Question: When did you know you wanted to be a screenwriter?

Answer: I’ve always been a writer. And it’s kind of been in my family. No one in my family has ever pursued it [professionally] but they’ve always written. I was just the first one either dumb enough or crazy enough to pursue it.

Q: The entertainment industry is notoriously tough to break into. How did you get your start?

A: One of my first jobs in LA was as a paid audience member. You get paid to clap. I literally had to go sit in “Jeopardy” and this terrible Donny Osmond show for hours and just clap for minimum wage, because I was just trying to find anything to put food on the table. Later, I worked at a literary agency, Innovative Artists, representing writers and directors. When they had a script that they wanted to shop or potentially try to sell, I would read it and give them notes about what we could revise in order to make it market ready. I was reading 10-15 scripts a week, at least. It was a great way to keep that creativity going but also understand the business side of it.

Q: What was the most difficult aspect of the job?

A: There’s a character in “Entourage,” Ari Gold, who’s played by Jeremy Piven. And he’s kind of this egomaniac who gets what he wants, and works as hard as he can to get his clients work. And it’s very much like that; it’s like a fraternity, it’s grueling. There are agents who are literally, physically and mentally abusive on a daily basis. I mean, I’ve had scripts thrown at me, staplers thrown at me … I think I grinded half of my teeth away [at that time].

Q: At what point did you decide “I’m done with this”?

A: I spent quite a bit of time at Innovative Artists. I was going to leave to start writing full-time, but some friends of mine had gone to a place called Creative Artists Agency, which is arguably one of the bigger agencies in the world in the entertainment industry. So I went there and started working with Joel Lubin, who represented, for example, Brad Pitt and Tim Robbins. I was there for a limited amount of time only because it wasn’t the side [of the industry] that I wanted to be on, but I did make amazing connections.

Finally, when I kind of burnt out, I decided I was just going to dive headfirst into screenwriting and try to make a living out of it. The first film that I wrote is entitled “Killing Winston Jones,” and that’s the project that’s going to be coming out in theaters this year. It’s tested incredibly well, and people are laughing and people are crying. So we think we hopefully have a sleeper hit on us.

Q: What other projects have you got in the works?

A: Oh gosh, I think I have 16 projects right now in different phases of development. I came from the feature world, so for several years I was writing features. “Killing Winston Jones” was the first one to go. That went because when I was at Innovative Artists, I became friends with an actor/director named Joel David Moore. Joel is known for his roles in “Grandma’s Boy,” “Dodgeball” and “Avatar.” He read “Killing Winston Jones” and really enjoyed it and said that he wanted to direct it, produce it and star in it. So he was able to help me get that off the ground. I also have a few other features I’ve written that have been optionedTo option a film is to sell the film’s rights to a company for specified period of time, during which they have the option to produce it. If at the end of that period of time the film has not been produced, the film rights are restored to the seller, who can choose to re-option it with the same company or an alternate company..

I recently moved into television because … the average time it takes for a script to go to screen, if you’re an established writer, is 18 months to three years. It’s hard to really make an existence as a writer off of that.

Q: That’s a lot of projects. Where do you find your inspiration?

A: I read this book recently by Jonah Lehrer, called “Imagine: How Creativity Works.” Because we’re constantly searching — I mean, that’s the question: Where, how do we get inspired? How do we get these ideas? Really, for me, it just happens. It’s kind of organic. With “Killing Winston Jones,” it was from reading the trades.

Q: So you get inspiration from everyday life?

A: Everyday life, yeah, human interaction. People will surprise you or inspire you. I tell my students if they’re looking for inspiration, there are so many things going on in the university. Go to a class, go to a party, go hang out with your friends, go get coffee, go eavesdrop, gossip.

I started an idea journal when I was in college, so any time I would hear something funny or something sad or something that really triggered something in me, I’d write it down. Don’t wait, though. When that idea strikes, don’t be like, “Oh, I’ll put it down later,” because we forget. When ideas come to you, keep a journal, go back to it and then you have this wellspring. I finally condensed mine, and now I have over 120 pages of a 10-font Word document. So every once in a while, I’ll flip through a few pages [to get inspired].

As a writer, you have these peaks of megalomania and these deep, deep valleys of self-loathing. And you’re usually in the self-loathing part. But hopefully, if you’re passionate about what you do, you have a belief in what you can create.

Q: How did you get into teaching?

A: A few years back, I had quite a few people who were contacting me asking for help in developing story concepts. So I started consulting with young, aspiring screenwriters, trying to help them get their scripts sold. I really enjoyed that process, so … I contacted UCLA and was directed to the UCLA extension writers program. The first course I taught was Intro to Screenwriting. I don’t know if I was just extremely lucky, but I had incredible students who were very receptive to the material and willing to put in the time and effort and work extremely hard. So it was very gratifying for me.

I ended up coming out to Arizona because of my wife’s work. I was still dividing my time between here and LA [and I wanted to] plant some roots out here. So I contacted ASU and I talked with Michael GreenMichael Green is a lecturer in the ASU Department of English’s film and media studies program. about my background and what I could hopefully bring to the program here. He talked to Aaron BakerAaron Baker is an associate professor in ASU’s Department of English., and then I met with Aaron, and they sort of petitioned to see if they could bring me in to teach a few classes, which worked, thankfully. I’m really excited about the two classes that I’m teaching right now.

Q: What are those classes?

A: Writing for Television, which is FMS 394, and FMS 494, which is Story Analysis for Film and Television. My goal for Writing for Television is to have every student pass the class and have what’s called a TV show deck, which is kind of like an outline that breaks down what your script is about, who the characters are, what the world is, what the tone is, what the pilot looks like, what the seasons look like — basically it’s a calling card. So if you have a great concept, you can shop that around to production companies and studios.

Q: So your students are going to leave your classes ready to go pitch their stuff for real?

A: Yes. And I think what Aaron saw in me and what Michael saw in me teaching here is that, not only do students have that, they now have me to help them with the connections that they need. So if a student has written something that is compelling and that I think really works in the dramatic space, I can act as a liaison to try to get their project read, or to set up a meeting for them.

Beyond that, one of the things I’m hoping to bring to the department is — when I went down to Los Angeles from UC Santa Barbara, I had the foundation of film history and film theory but I didn’t really know the business side of it. So I had to try to find it on my own. If my students tell me early on what it is that they’re passionate about, then I can reach out to Innovative Artists, or Creative Artists Agency, or a production company [for them]. So, now they have an opportunity to leave ASU and immediately get plugged in.

Q: How do you balance writing/teaching/life?

A: There are not enough hours in the day. You know, you just do it. If it’s something that you love and you’re passionate about, you just find the time. Once you figure out what it is that you’re passionate about, you know that you’re going to have to make sacrifices. So there is no real answer; you just find the time. And when you can find the time to sleep, you sleep.