Skip to main content

Making textbooks accessible to all

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

Sri Kiran Potluri prepares book pages to be scanned
March 09, 2016

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.