Happy Anniversary, TECH-NJ! Yes, it has been 20 years since the very first edition of TECH-NJ rolled off the press. The cover story in that first issue was on the Prison Braille Project in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Bill Ziegler, an assistive technology specialist from the Bucks County Intermediate Unit #22, trained inmates to convert textbooks into Braille for the county’s blind students. The inmates did this by retyping the texts on an Apple IIe and Apple IIGS computer using a program called BEX (Braille Edit Express) and converted the word processing files into Braille using the BEX translator program. Gail Polzer, teacher of the blind/visually impaired, then took the floppy disks and used a Braille embosser to create Braille books for the students. As a result of this unusual collaborative effort, blind students had timely access to their textbooks and were able to keep up with their schoolwork.
Twenty years later and the Bucks County Prison Braille Project is still in operation! Technology has come a long way since it began. Scanners and optical character recognition software have eliminated the need to retype textbooks and have speeded up the process considerably. Several websites (such as Project Gutenberg and Bookshare.org) offer electronic versions of books that can sometimes eliminate the need for scanning. The most recent reauthorization of IDEA includes support for the National Instructional Materials Access Center (NIMAC). But the problem of providing timely access to textbooks in alternate formats remains. The NIMAC is not yet operating at full capacity, and even when it does, the IDEA requirement applies only to the K-12 world, not to college textbooks. Scanning is a time-consuming process, and many school districts and colleges have not been able to develop efficient procedures for scanning textbooks into alternate formats. As a result, many students with visual impairments or learning disabilities still do not have access to their reading assignments. Clearly some kind of creative solution is called for.
Inspired by the thinking-outside-the-box quality of the Prison Braille Project, staff at the Adaptive Technology Center for New Jersey Colleges took the opportunity of one-time supplemental funding from the New Jersey Commission on Higher Education to design a pilot project that is exploring the possibility of providing a textbook scanning service to colleges in the state. We are setting up a scanning/editing station with a high-speed scanner and powerful optical character recognition software, and plan to determine the feasibility of offering textbook scanning for college students with print disabilities on a fee-for-service basis. We will be working with disability support offices at colleges around the state, several of whom have expressed interest in using such a service. The high-speed scanning will be the easy part; what will be tricky will be determining the best proofing and editing process, training student workers to scan and edit, and coming up with a viable protocol for requesting the service. The pilot project runs through December 2008, so we expect to announce our findings on the Adaptive Technology Center website (http://adaptivetech.tcnj.edu) and in next year’s issue of TECH-NJ. If you have a textbook you need in alternate format for the fall semester, are willing to have the binding cut off, and are interested in helping us work out these procedures, please contact the Adaptive Technology Center at (609)771-2610 or firstname.lastname@example.org.