Imagine: a student with a disability logs onto the Internet, browses through a catalog of school textbooks, and downloads an anthology of literature assigned for her English class. Then, following a few simple instructions, the text for chapter one appears on the screen and is highlighted, as a human voice begins to read. With a new system pioneered by Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFBD), this scenario will soon become reality for thousands of students who cannot access information in standard print-based textbooks.
RFBD, a nonprofit, volunteer-based organization and the only national provider of educational books in recorded and computerized format, is developing a system of producing textbooks in a digital format. AudioPlus links a computerized text file with a digitally recorded sound file. According to RFBD's Senior Vice President, John Kelly, this combines the advantages of cassette-based books ("books on tape"), which enable users to hear text being read in a natural, human voice, with the advanced searching and navigation capabilities of computerized "E-Text" books.
RFBD produces books in both of these formats, but Kelly says that each has drawbacks: books on cassette are difficult to search through, especially for younger children. And "E-Text" books rely on synthetic speech, which some users, especially students with dyslexia, find difficult to understand. "E-text" books are also incapable of reading graphics. In a sense, AudioPlus represents the best of both worlds.
Having successfully produced several textbook titles in the new format, RFBD will spend the next two years getting ready for the future: they will work with students, parents, and teachers to refine many AudioPlus features, like the built-in ability to adjust the rate at which text is read aloud. In addition, RFBD will convert its analog library of over 77,000 textbook titles to the AudioPlus format. And they will retool their 34 recording studios around the country from analog recording studios to digital. Kelly predicts that, by the year 2000, blind, visually impaired, and dyslexic students will be reading digital textbooks. They will be distributed in a variety of ways, including over the Internet and on CD-ROM.