MLK Library, DCPS and BRS Unite to Benefit Students with Print Disabilities

by John M. Williams

WASHINGTON -- Recognizing the need to improve educational opportunities for District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) students who have a visual impairment, a physical disability or learning disability, administrators from the DCPS, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Public Library, and Blind Rehabilitation Services presented their vision of access to digital accessible books from Bookshare. 

At an April ceremony in the MLK Library's Adaptive Services Division, Dr. Richard Nyankori, deputy chancellor for special education, said, "For individuals with disabilities the odds are against you, but it does not have to be that way. Tragically the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is 66 percent higher than their able-bodied peers. For blind individuals, the unemployment rate is 70 percent. This is not the future that we see for students with disabilities at DCPS."

Nyankori stressed that DCPS wants to create a system of world-class services that supports graduates with disabilities to ensure they finish college and get jobs so they can live as independently as possible.

According to Nyankori, access to assistive technology is a key goal of the DCPS. He believes access to assistive technology is a fundamental tool for students to increase their independence and quality of life while breaking down barriers to academic and employment opportunities. "Such access to assistive technology breaks the cycle of poverty that is so prevalent among District of Columbia Public Schools students with these types of disabilities and instead puts them on a trajectory for economic success, lifelong learning and service to their community."

Betsy Beaumon, vice president of Benetech/Bookshare's Literacy Programs, said, "Bookshare is honored to participate in an event that is changing the lives of these students and many others with print disabilities."
The Mission of the Office of Special Education 

Norma Villanueva, program director in the Office of Special Education for D.C. Public Schools, focused on the population of students who have print disabilities. Historically, individuals with these types of disabilities have experienced poor academic outcomes. They have been segregated into separate classes, separate programs, and separate schools. 

Prison statistics show that as many as 60 percent of inmates have disabilities that affect learning. Outcomes are worse for students with these disabilities living in D.C. Many such students face barriers created not only by their disability, but also by race, immigrant status, and socio-economic condition.

The DCPS Office of Special Education's mission is providing a set of services and supports to meet the unique needs of these students and make the D.C. public school system the first and best educational option for them and their families. DCPS's vision is that these students will receive textbooks and other core instructional materials in accessible formats at the same time as their non-disabled classmates. Through Bookshare, this program gives students with print disabilities equal access to the general curriculum, provides more opportunities for integration in the general education settings with non-disabled peers, contributes to higher graduation rates, prepares more students for college entry, and ultimately results in higher rates of employment. 

To that end, the school system is partnering with the Rehabilitation Services Administration and the D.C. Public Library's Adaptive Services Division to ensure more positive outcomes for these students while they are in school, a seamless transition to post-secondary life, and positive outcomes once they leave the school system.

Historically, thousands of disabled students across our nation can tell you their stories of feeling left out, unprepared, and at risk for falling behind. They can tell when they fell behind. They were either assigned a dedicated aide to modify their school work, copy for them from the chalkboard, take notes for them, provide tutoring, or they were segregated into special classes, special programs, or special schools. Sometimes these students were assigned a dedicated aide and segregated away from their non-disabled peers into highly restrictive settings. 

When the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was reauthorized, provisions were added to ensure that students with print disabilities had equal access to the general curriculum at the same time as students without disabilities. These provisions created a National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard known as NIMAS, and a National Instructional Materials Access Center known as NIMAC. 

NIMAS is a technical standard used by publishers to provide source files that can be used to develop braille or audio books. These students may one day transition from having their needs met by the school system to having them met by the Rehabilitation Services Administration, with the goal of satisfying employment and independent living. NIMAC provides standardized source files to those who have been authorized to obtain them for the purpose of producing textbooks and other core instructional materials.

To ensure that students with print disabilities didn't have to continue to wait weeks or longer for their textbooks and other instructional materials, as a school district, the Office of Special Education embraced the use of assistive technology. It conducted instructional media assessments to determine if a student's primary learning channel was tactile, visual, or auditory. It also conducted assistive technology evaluations to determine if a student's primary learning medium was braille, large print, or text-to-speech. Based on the results of these findings, the Office of Special Education made recommendations for appropriate assistive technology devices to individualized education plan teams.
The Students' Stories

The ability to download source files from Bookshare and access them using assistive technology devices has made a difference for DCPS students with print disabilities.

Legally blind Krystian Williams attends Turner at Greene Elementary School. Although Krystian has a difficult time seeing details, he can see large print on a My Reader machine with white letters on a black background. He is learning to use a Braille Note so he can read more books without having to carry heavy braille volumes around. His view on assistive technology is, "I am discovering new adventures in reading."

Wilberto "Alex" Cruz attends Alice Deale Middle School. He is legally blind, and strengthens his reading skills by seeing and hearing materials simultaneously. Alex uses Victor Reader Soft which enables him to access synchronized audio with magnified text. "I have become a world traveler" with the use of assistive technology, he says.

Alexis McGee attends Woodrow Wilson High School. She lost her vision two years ago as the result of a neurological disorder characterized by pressure around the brain and swelling of the optic nerve. As a young adult, it has been difficult for Alexis to learn to read braille by touch. Alexis is using Victor Reader Stream to listen to assigned textbooks and novels. She says, "Assistive technology will advance my education and career opportunities."

Danika Walker also attends Woodrow Wilson High School. She has low vision. When reading, Danika manipulates the font size in Microsoft Word documents using a laptop computer. She says, "Assistive technology allows me to meet my goals."

Carlos Zacharias Hilton recently enrolled at Woodrow Wilson High School. He has albinism. Carlos has low vision, and he uses Read Out Loud Accessible Text Reader Software on a laptop computer. He says, "With assistive technology, I feel [included] and not separated."

Chrichelle Brown attends Woodrow Wilson High School. She has retinopathy of prematurity. Chrichelle uses the zoom feature on an iPad to enlarge print for accessibility. She says, "With this technology, there are no barriers in front of me. They have been knocked down."

Wallace Dews attends Woodrow Wilson High School. He has an eye condition. He uses the zoom feature on a laptop computer to access print. Wallace says, "I can see a future for me."

Sabrina DaSilva attends Sharpe Health School. She has an eye condition, as well as some physical limitations, and uses Victor Reader Soft with a laptop computer and switches to enable her to stop, start, and pause in textbooks and novels that she is listening to or reading. "This technology allows me to plan my future," she says. "Poverty will not be part of my future life."

Davante Jenkins attends Calvin Coolidge High School. A learning disability that affects reading negatively impacts his ability to access print. He listens to an assigned novel using an MP3 player. He says, "Assistive technology liberates me."