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Lucy Greco

  Accessibility in Education


A Brief History of E-Text: Part II

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How Text Became Accessible for Persons with Disabilities - Part II by Lucy Greco. In the concluding part of this blog, the author looks at impediments to accessing print and online materials due to IP and Copyright Acts.

After policy advances of the 1970s directly led to increased enrollment of students with disabilities, technology such as magnifiers in the form of closed circuit TVs provided low vision students access to printed text. Right around the same time, a revolutionary device called the Opticon gave totally blind individuals the ability to read a printed book. Schools began to provide textbooks on tape and in Braille. As technology improved, the margin for accessing these texts narrowed. Teachers who taught the blind in the early 1980s needed to provide copies of books for transcription from print to Braille at least a year or two in advance. Today, most transcription services only require 6 to 8 weeks. Students using electronic texts are becoming a norm and not seen part of a special circumstance. Many educational systems are experimenting with different platforms of electronic texts to reduce the significant cost of textbooks to both the educational systems and students.

Electronic texts often include copyright protection that also interferes with assistive technologies

Electronic texts often include copyright protection that also interferes with assistive technologies

Unfortunately, this century has brought setbacks to accessibility. Electronic texts often include copyright protection that also interferes with assistive technologies. It is not unusual for an individual using a screen reader to be blocked from accessing content by whatever digital rights management or copy protection is keeping the material from being copied.  While all the publishers have been rushing to find better ways and faster ways to release electronic texts one of their top priorities has always been copyright protection. It is very frustrating for a person with a reading disability to acquire an electronic file only to discover that their assistive technology is completely blocked from using that file. Students with reading disabilities cannot take advantage of many of the lower-priced E texts specifically because of this problem. It is very important to consider the rights of content owners but we need to be sure that the rights of people with reading disabilities are also respected.

Improvement in accessible technology can be directly correlated to participation of students with disabilities within the educational system. Once educators were able to start providing accessible textbooks to students, fewer and fewer students were barred from receiving educations. Today, there are more students with disabilities receiving post-secondary educations than ever before. The students used tape recorders and cassette tapes in advanced applications and ways greater than ever envisioned for the technology. Today with the advancements in technologies, a person can carry hundreds of more material in a netbook or an iPad than ever possible with physical books and print materials. Today, blind and print-disabled individuals can access libraries ‘virtually’ via the Internet or in person. 

Strangely enough early efforts to digitize texts never factored in copyright. Project Gutenberg was one of the first efforts to provide a digital archive of some of the world’s most important writings. The modern equivalent of Project Gutenberg is the Google books project. Unlike Project Gutenberg, the Google books project is endeavoring to digitize copyrighted material as well as public domain texts. Because of this, Google and its partner libraries faced a great deal of resistance from the publishing industry.  Although this problem is mostly settled, some of the concessions within the settlement block the accessibility of the content.

As we move forward with electronic materials we must take a stand for accessibility. We cannot in the future permit individual copyright to be more important than the larger rights of everyone to access information. Copyright protection should not be a passive tool of discrimination. We cannot permit information that should be available freely to be withheld from people with disabilities because of the fear of inappropriate use. If we must protect material from being copied inappropriately we must find ways to do so that does not violate the rights of individuals with disabilities from using the same information.
Lucia Greco with her guide dog PecanLucy Greco is a blind advocate for accessible technology. She is the user of various assistive technologies since the early 1980s. She is passionate about the ways technology makes the world more accessible to everyone but especially individuals with disabilities.
Related Publication: Making Television Accessible (G3ict Publication)