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Bookshare or Learning Ally: text access solutions for students with print disabilities

by Mary Mazzoni on June 21, 2012

Does your child’s disability interfere with learning from class textbooks or reading independently for pleasure?

Bookshare and Learning Ally (formerly Recordings for the Blind & Dyslexic) offer solutions for eligible students.

Operating under an exception to US copyright law, they make copyrighted books available in accessible formats to people with documented print disabilities.

What are key differences between Bookshare and Learning Ally?

Both are non-profit organizations that provide access to text for people with documented print disabilities.

Here are some differences between the two options:

Formats

Bookshare provides encrypted DAISY 3  (Digital Accessible Information System) text files for use with screen reader technology (that reads the text using a computer synthesized voice). The text can also appear on the screen with modifications such as enlargement or highlighting the words as they are read.

Bookshare can also provide text in refreshable or embossed Braille.

Learning Ally provides audiobooks. Volunteers read the text and the (human voice) audio files can be played using a variety of devices such as ipad, iphone or mp3 players.

Selection

Both providers offer an extensive selection.

However, the Bookshare library is significantly larger and includes access to newly published text books as well as some periodicals (newspapers, magazines).

Cost

Bookshare offers free membership to US students with a documented print disability due to a grant from the federal Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP). Free membership extends to those enrolled in postsecondary programs as well as K-12 students. Eligible adults who are not enrolled in an educational program can pay for a $50 per year membership (with $25 one-time setup fee).

Learning Ally offers individual membership for eligible persons of any age at a cost of $99 per year.

Who is eligible for Bookshare?

If your child has a disability that makes it difficult or impossible to read a printed book, s/he is likely eligible for Bookshare. These disabilities may include vision impairments, learning disabilities, or physical limitations that interfere with manipulating a printed book. Click here for eligibility details.

Individual and school Bookshare memberships

Your child may be accessing digital materials through a school Bookshare membership. That’s great – but there’s nothing like an individual Bookshare membership that allows your child to choose and access books directly at any time.

A personal Bookshare membership has ignited a passion for books in many young people who have struggled with print.

Click here to find out how to apply for free individual student membership.

(Note – even with an individual membership, your child will need to work through his/her school to request textbooks. Textbooks cannot be accessed directly by students).

What texts are available via Bookshare?

The library is massive and growing. It includes textbooks, newspapers and magazines, as well as literature  and popular books for pleasure reading. You can search for titles in multiple ways, including browsing subjects of interest. Children’s books and young adult literature is also categorized by reader’s age.

How are Bookshare files delivered?

Books are delivered to members in one of two formats:

  • Encrypted DAISY 3 text files (Digital Accessible Information System) for use with screenreader technology
  • Braille Refreshable Format (BRF) for Braille readers

Bookshare members may not share the files with anyone else. To do so is a copyright enfringement.

How can Bookshare files be accessed?

Bookshare offers a choice of two free software applications to access the DAISY 3 text files on either Mac or PC, High quality computer voices are also available without cost.

The Daisy 3 text files can also be accessed by other screen reader software programs that can be purchased independently.

In addition, apps are now available to read Bookshare files on iPad and Android devices.

Embossed braille can be ordered through a partnership with TechAdapt, Inc. Click here for details.

Who is eligible for Learning Ally?

Eligibility is similar to Bookshare. Click here for Learning Ally eligibility details.

Individual and school Learning Ally memberships

Your child may be able to access audiobooks from Learning Ally through a school membership. To find out about individual membership, click here.

What texts are available from Learning Ally?

Although not as extensive as Bookshare, Learning Ally has a large collection of textsbooks and literature for readers of all ages. Find out more here.

How are Learning Ally files delivered?

Learning Ally uses an Audiobook Manager that downloads files that have been ordered by a member and organizes them on a “bookshelf” from which you can sync them to your player. Click here to find out more.

How can Learning Ally files be accessed?

Apps can be purchased from Learning Ally to enable access of audiobooks via a number of popular devices. There is also a free software program available for desktop computer access of audiobooks.  A dedicated reader can also be purchased.

Click here for more details about Learning Ally book playback options.

A word about reading instruction

If your child struggles with decoding and reading fluency, explicit research-based reading instruction is critically important. Your child will need to decode text on the job and in other situations without access to screen readers or audiobooks.

Bookshare and /or Learning Ally can help your child access content from text s/he cannot currently read fluently. That’s important. But explicit research-based reading instruction should continue, with close progress monitoring and instructional adjustments as needed to ensure steady progress in independent reading.

Your turn

Has your child used Bookshare or Learning Ally? Please share your experiences or suggestions with us in the comments!

Did you find this post helpful? Please share it. Thanks!

Photo credit: Morgaine at Flickr

(Please read comments for updated information)

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Kelly June 22, 2012 at 2:12 pm

It should be noted that at more than 145,000 books, Bookshare’s collection is more than twice that of Learning Ally, with about 70k books. However, the article tries to do a mash up of the two services. But this is a false choice. If something is in accessible format, folks should use it no matter where it is. Those that get really picky about access and preferred providers will get left behind.

Reply

Mary Mazzoni June 23, 2012 at 9:24 am

Thanks for your comment, Kelly!
I appreciate you clarifying the number of books in each collection.
(Growing daily!)
Upon reflection, I wish I’d used the word “and” rather than “or” in the title.
Many people use BOTH Bookshare and Learning Ally.
I do find that many families have questions about the differences between the two options. My hope is that this post helps clarify the differences while connecting folks directly to the sites for further information.
Thanks for adding to the conversation!

Reply

Mary Mazzoni June 23, 2012 at 9:05 pm

I received some important information from an assistive technology consultant via email in response to this post.

1.) Regarding Bookshare and Textbooks:

a.) Textbooks must be ordered from Bookshare by an educational entity.
Students cannot order textbooks directly. They must work through their school.
For k-12 students, this means collaborating with the special education office.
For postsecondary education, it would require the student work through the office of disability services (which goes by different names at different schools).
Students CAN directly access Bookshare books and magazines with an individual membership – but textbooks must be accessed through their school.

b.) There is a lead time of several weeks (from time requested by school until time received by student) for textbooks. So it’s important to plan ahead.

2.) Apps are available for reading Bookshare files.
Read2Go is an iPad app and GoRead is an app for Adroid devices.

Thanks so much for this important information, Josie!

Does anyone else have tips or experiences to share? Please join the conversation so we can all benefit!

Reply

Lauren July 26, 2012 at 6:02 am

I wanted to add that the Learning Ally Audio app for the iPhone, iPad, and iPod is now free. Also, over 65% of the 70,000 titles in Learning Ally’s library are audio textbooks for K-12 and college . They are available for download immediately to members without having to go through a school.

Thanks for the great article!

Reply

Lindsey January 9, 2013 at 8:24 am

Hi, I am a Learning Ally user and I just wanted to provide an update to the information in this article. Membership is now $119 per year, but they also offer a 10-day free trial. Also, I believe their library now contains around 75,000 book titles.

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Mary Mazzoni January 9, 2013 at 10:36 am

Thanks for this Learning Ally update, Lindsey! Your input will help others better understand their options. Your comment is really appreciated! All the best!

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Rachel January 27, 2013 at 10:38 pm

My fourth grade dyslexic son is currently ‘reading’ his class novel with Learning Ally. We have tried both Bookshare and Learning Ally, and he seems to prefer the human voices with LA. I tried to download the natural voice package that is an extension of Bookshare, however he still found the voices too automated. As a parent I do find value in the highlighted text component of Bookshare as research proves that following along for a struggling reader will help with fluency. To compensate I just make sure my son is following along with his own copy of the book by his side. I have been an advocate to increase awareness of these services within public schools, many media specialists/librarians do not even realize districts have already paid for this resource and are not using it. Please know that this service is of zero cost, if it is requested as an assistive technology accommodation on a student’s IEP.

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Mary Mazzoni January 28, 2013 at 5:36 am

Rachel, I really appreciate you taking time to share your son’s experience with Bookshare and Learning Ally!

You made a key point about the importance of following along with the text to improve fluency. So glad your son tried both Bookshare (with natural voice package) and Learning Ally – so he could make a choice between the two.

Sometimes, especially for high school and college students, certain texts they require may only be available on Bookshare. Isn’t it good to be able to utilize either one (or both) of these options!

It’s great that you’re spreading the word to other parents. Accessing text via Bookshare and Learning Ally can literally transform a student’s experience of school and pleasure reading.

So glad your son is having such a positive experience – and that you took time to share! All the best to both of you!

Reply

Mary Mazzoni January 28, 2013 at 5:41 am

Oh – and Rachel, thanks also for emphasizing the fact that there is zero cost to families for either Learning Ally or Bookshare if included in the IEP.

The cost information for Learning Ally in the post is simply there for those (for example, college students) – who do not have an IEP.

Reply

lisa locicero June 20, 2013 at 8:40 am

I am in the process of setting up services for both bookshare and learning ally for my dyslexic son who will be entering middle school next year. I was able to access bookshare for free due to my son’s IEP but was told from learning ally that they have lost their federal grant so the cost is $119.00 dollars for a year. Learning ally stated that they most likely have his in school textbooks available whereas bookshare has more publications available. I was looking for the differences between the two organizations and if one is preferred over the other. I don’t mind paying for the membership, quite honesty it’s a drop in the bucket compared to tutoring and reading clinic costs. I’m just trying to get some information so I can try to help his transition from elementary school to middle school a little easier. The above comments have been very helpful, then again, I find most parents of dyslexic/learning disabilities children to be extremely accommodating!

Reply

Mary Mazzoni June 21, 2013 at 4:10 pm

Hello Lisa!
Bookshare has,by far, more titles than Learning Ally.

A key difference is that Bookshare employs computer software (a computer voice), while Learning Ally utilizes human readers. It is important for students with print disabilities to learn how to access information from text using Bookshare’s technology. That said, many students enjoy the human voices provided by Learning Ally when a title is available through Learning Ally.

So – a Learning Ally subscription would provide your son with a human voice reading text – but the selection of titles is very significantly smaller than Bookshare.

Also – a question – does your son have an individual membership with Bookshare – or just a school membership? It is very helpful to have both a school and an individual membership. With an individual membership – your son can access books and periodicals of his choice year round to read for pleasure. https://www.bookshare.org/membershipOptions#IndividualMemberships

Hope this helps! All the best to you and your son!

Reply

Kelly June 23, 2013 at 8:10 am

I can’t emphasize enough that children themselves not their parents need to familiarize and be comfortable with the formats from the different services. As your son goes into middle school, he hopefully will read more than textbooks. Certainly all non-dyslexic children will be reading many different kinds of books outside of any class assignment. If he has not had the opportunity to use books from Learning Ally and the National Library Service, he should be signed up for these services. Learning Ally and NLS use human readers. Learning Ally though uses volunteer readers. This will give him the experience of learning what access from a non-voice professional sounds like. He will likely rely upon either human readers or technology to assist him in reading the rest of his life. Now is the time to discover the different approaches and learn what works best for particular situations. Also, working with Bookshare books will enable him to try different kinds of speech synthesis for reading. Some sound very human like.

Regarding cost, I understand the Education Department had Bookshare and Learning Ally compete for the same grant and Bookshare won. The cost of Learning Ally can be paid by the school when it is included in an IEP. Addressing print access issues in an IEP is essential because this allows the school to leverage the ability to obtain accessible books from publishers on behalf of the student. If one has already been written, make an accommodations demand of the school under Section 35.160 of the Americans with Disabilities Act. If the school balks, file a civil rights complaint with the federal education department. The school is required to provide effective communication.

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krista waters September 15, 2013 at 1:07 pm

My nam e and krista and I did not go threw my college to get my book for school I got it myself.

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Mary Mazzoni September 15, 2013 at 5:59 pm

Thanks for sharing your experience, Krista. Did you go through Bookshare?

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Tracy October 17, 2013 at 9:13 am

I work as a School Psychologist and have been very impressed with Bookshare and the Read2Go App on the IPad. The standard voices are non-human sounding, but it is my understanding that there are ways to use different voices either through a change in Ipad settings or with add-ons. A really big improvement that was made recently is that students with Individual Memberships (which are free if qualified and eligible) can use Google Chrome and have books read to them from within the browser. That really enhances accessibility.

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Mary Mazzoni October 19, 2013 at 7:37 am

Thanks so much for your comment Tracy. Free Bookshare Individual Memberships can make a real difference in a student’s life – and the technology continues to develop to further improve accessibility. The Bookshare website provides information about applying for membership – as well as updated information about apps. https://www.bookshare.org/membershipOptions#IndividualMemberships. Thanks for spreading the word about Bookshare’s benefits for student with print disabilities.

Even as we continue to provide reading decoding instruction to students – it is important that they have a way to access text using available technology.

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