NAU was recently granted $1 million from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to fund a program to help students with reading disabilities. Universities across the country struggle with acquiring textbooks and other course materials in readable formats for these students. NAU will take part in an experimental pilot program with six other universities in order to try to change that.
The program, known as Federating Repositories of Accessible Materials for Higher Education, was hatched by the University of Virginia (UVA) Library. Aside from NAU and UVA, the other schools involved include George Mason University, Texas A&M University, the University of Illinois, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Vanderbilt University.
Disability Resources Director Jamie Axelrod explained that the purpose of this program is to make reading easier for both the students and universities by permitting materials to be shared.
“If we have a textbook that we use for biology 181 and there are 40 other universities that use the same text book, we all have to do the conversion for students who need it in an alternative format,” Axelrod said. “There’s a lot of duplication of effort across the country when you think of common materials that get used.”
With the federated repository in place, schools could upload materials they have and students from other schools could access them, thus saving time on the student’s part and effort and materials on the university’s part.
Axelrod further explained that the reason why universities don’t already share resources is concern over copyright law.
Aside from the universities involved, there are three large online libraries involved too, according to the UVA library’s website.
According to an excerpt from a Jan. 11 UVA news release, the pilot also depends on HathiTrust, Bookshare, and The Internet Archive, three large digital repositories, each of which already provides service to users with print disabilities.
The news release also explained that the pilot program has its roots stemming from work already done in an Institute of Museum and Library Services funded grant. This grant explored how universities handle creating materials for students with print disabilities.
Axelrod added having these three repositories included is a huge bonus.
“When the pilot program starts, not only will there be the converted materials provided by the universities but access to the materials from the other three organizations as well,” Axelrod said.
They work on creating the infrastructure is slated to begin at UVA after a kick-off meeting Feb. 15 and will begin. Axelrod has high hopes for the future of the new repository.
“I think what’s really the most exciting is that if this pilot goes well, and we can open up to other institutions nationwide,” Axelrod said. “Not only will it make this process better, faster and easier for us, but it will do that for every institution that joins.”
The exact number of students with print disabilities at NAU is unknown according to Damon Burke, digital media technologist at Cline Library. However, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, in 2008, 10.8 percent of students enrolled in universities had some kinf of disability.
“First, this number has certainly grown since 2008,” Burke said in an email. “Second, it most likely under-represents the entire population when you take into account all the forms of learning disabilities that might cause a student to need some kind of assistance.”
As for options students with print disabilities already have, Burke added that the Cline Library is prepared to get them the materials they need as soon as possible.
“For all of NAU classes, irrespective of any disability intervention, we prepare hundreds of electronic texts and thousands of videos every year,” Burke said in an email. “We provide all manner of print, video and audio content, both in physical and in electronic formats. We do our best to make sure the content meets federal, state and local requirements in regard to meeting ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] and Section 508 requirements.”
The program will require teamwork within the universities participating, as Cline Library Dean Cynthia Childrey explained in an email.
“I want to emphasize just how important it is that both the disability resources offices and libraries at each of the seven pilot universities are participating,” Childrey said. “Disability resources offices have taken on the work of making educational materials accessible, often with very few staff. Libraries have expertise in managing and providing access to content.”
She stated that the end goal is less duplication of effort for the universities and faster content availability for students.