Volume VII Number 1, August 2000

"Hitting The Books:" Accessible Textbooks for K-12 Math And Science Education

Stephen L. Noble
Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic


It is not uncommon to hear a parent or teacher encourage a young student to "hit the books" when the student is struggling with a difficult subject in school. Most of us can remember times in our own childhoods when hopes for some outdoor activity were bashed by mom or dad informing us that our school work demanded more of our attention, or occasions where long evenings were spent at the kitchen table with our heads stuck in books. And of course, the more complicated the subject, the longer it took to get that reading done.

For students with disabilities, however, "hitting the books" often becomes a challenge in itself, which adds to the difficulty of studying complex subjects such as higher mathematics, electronics, or chemistry, to name a few. For K-12 students who lack the mobility to turn the pages, who cannot see the words on the page, or who cannot process the printed information due to learning disabilities, the ability to excel in math and science subjects is often artificially restricted by the lack of accessible textbooks.

Although one may argue that a considerable amount of K-12 education comes through direct personal instruction in a classroom setting, no one can disagree that much of a student's educational experience depends on the use of textbooks, both in the classroom and at home. Throughout a person's schooling, there are two major avenues of learning that tend to complement and reinforce each other: teachers and books. There are, of course, the anecdotal stories of great thinkers who "never cracked a book" but who had the benefit of some truly outstanding teachers, or those who never attended a formal school but achieved brilliance through years of self-study. But, the reality is that modern education depends upon a student's access to both good teachers and good books. For students with disabilities, a major concern is the availability of truly accessible textbooks. This issue becomes even more important when we talk about accessible science and math texts for K-12 students.


Over the years, we have witnessed the development a variety of methods that may be used to supply access to printed materials for students with disabilities. Certainly the earliest and most direct method is simply to have another person read the desired section from the book - after all, that's how all of us get introduced to books in the first years of life. School is no different. But after the first couple of years in school, students are expected to read independently. For students with various types of print disabilities, however, acquiring independence depends upon the utilization of additional accommodations.

One possible practice for handling in-school work is the assignment of a staff member or teacher to act as a reader, while home reading may be provided by a family member or a care-giver. This usually works well for young students who cannot utilize printed materials due to their disability, but who have intact hearing. Since young students are using very basic materials, and have only a slight reading load, this strategy is usually sufficient. However, as the reading load and complexity increases with the student's progress through school, this approach begins to lose effectiveness. Additionally, dependence on a reader adversely affects a student's ability to independently discover and utilize books which have not been assigned by teachers, but that are needed to satisfy the natural craving for knowledge. Finally, some care-givers will not have the technical expertise to effectively read the kinds of higher level math and science texts that are used in the upper grades.


Perhaps the earliest successful innovation to assist blind students in accessing textbooks was the advent of Braille. Brailled materials are a common approach for students who have little or no usable sight, but who have reasonable dexterity. Braille is also a perfect match for a student who is both deaf and blind. Schools for the blind typically Braille their own materials for the early grades, as well as utilizing Brailled materials available through the American Printing House for the Blind (APH).

Mainstreamed students who do not attend specialized schools also have the same access to APH materials. Since the quality of education in the United States may vary substantially from state to state, or city to city, blind students may sometimes find only marginal school support for Brailling services, despite federal laws such as the Americans with Disabilities act and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which mandates accessible education. Much depends on the school system's provision of itinerant special education teachers who are skilled in Braille transcription.

There has been a major attempt by APH, however, to provide an online catalog of accessible materials which have been produced by schools and other Braille producers across the country. This way, even with limited resources a school system should be able to provide students with Brailled materials from other schools. The catalog, called Louis (formerly Carl et al), can be found on the World Wide Web at http://www.aph.org/

Although Brailled materials work very well for the lower grades, some textbook materials do not lend themselves well to Brailling, such as higher level math and physics. To deal more effectively with complex information, a number of special Braille codes have been developed to deal with mathematics, scientific notation, computer languages and music. But many of these codes are not standardized and require additional student time to master the code before reading the text is possible. Even with specialized codes, many complex research texts are simply unintelligible with Braille alone. In such cases, raised line drawings may also be produced to accompany a book which contains a number of diagrams, scatter plots, or geometrical figures, but then again, these are more difficult to make and have only limited utility.

Also, large textbooks are very expensive to produce in Braille, which compounds availability problems. These are some of the reasons that K-12 educators of past years cited for exempting blind students from math and science courses, or for trying to steer them away from pursuing these subjects in college. Some important work is currently being done, however, to make Braille much more accommodating to science and math fields. One such promising technology is called DotsPlus, which is being developed by John Gardner, a professor of physics at Oregon State University. In DotsPlus technology, Braille code is combined with the raised representations of symbols which cannot be directly imitated by Braille (such as the math symbols for integral and summation) rendering these complex symbols more compact and intuitive for Braille readers at all grade levels. For more information on the current development stage of DotsPlus, visit the World Wide Web site at http://dots.physics.orst.edu/dotsplus.html


Audio recordings on four-track cassette tapes are presently the most common form of accessible textbooks used throughout all educational levels. Audio textbooks can be produced much faster and cheaper than Brailled books, and can be used by students with varying print disabilities, including blindness, low vision, mobility impairments, and learning disabilities. Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D) is the major provider of audio textbooks for students in grades 4- 12, in addition to supplying textbooks at the undergraduate and graduate levels. RFB&D currently has a library of more than 75,000 books in audio form. To see which texts are available, you may visit their catalog on the World Wide Web at http://www.rfbd.org/catalog/

RFB&D has also recently begun an effort to increase holdings of audio books for grades K-3. In earlier years, audio recordings for the youngest students were not deemed appropriate as it was feared that this would interfere with a blind student's ability to learn Braille. However, due to a quickly growing user-base of very young students who are not blind, but who have severe learning disabilities, RFB&D has begun recording books at these very early grade levels as well.

In the math and science arena, RFB&D has benefited in the past from grants from the National Science Foundation, AT&T, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a number of other private foundations that have been earmarked for expanding the collection of math, science and technology texts in the college and secondary grade levels. Though not part of those grant efforts, many science and math textbooks are also available at the lower and middle grade levels. Currently, there are about 2,500 math and science texts in RFB&D's library that are designed for K-12 use. In order to properly communicate the meaning of math and science materials in an audio format, RFB&D depends upon trained readers who have expertise in the field. Figures, diagrams and equations are described in as precise detail as possible in an effort to help the reader visualize the layout of graphs or the spatial characteristics of complex mathematical formulas.

The major drawback to analog audio recordings is the inability to "browse" through a book or to search for a specific passage. Although audio textbooks are encoded with page and chapter tones, it is virtually impossible to locate particular subject references without knowing upon which page they appear. And even when a person knows the page number, it becomes impractical to try to locate a passage 40 pages into the side of a cassette. Also, it is often difficult for a listener to visualize the true nature of richly detailed illustrations or photographs from their verbal descriptions.


The advent of the computer "screen reader" or speech synthesizer has made access to textbooks in electronic form, called "etexts," a viable alternative to analog audio tapes for students who are blind or who have low vision. Students who are deaf-blind can also utilize etext materials with the use of a Refreshable Braille display. Etext books are easier and cheaper to produce than Braille, but the actual amount of production time can vary widely. Etext books are easy to copy since they are computer files, and can even be transmitted over the Internet, theoretically making them easier to obtain than any other form of book. The number of electronic textbooks available, however, is still rather low. Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic is currently the major producer of etext books and has been producing then since 1991. Computer science texts are the most common math and science books presently produced in etext form, as modern speech synthesizers cannot translate complex mathematical symbols or other graphical information.


A new technology on the horizon which may be particularly useful for making math and science texts more accessible to students with disabilities is digital audio. In its most powerful form, digital audio utilizes standard electronic texts which have been encoded with HTML tags and combines them with links to audio files of digital recordings of a human reader. In essence, this format creates a hybrid between the audio and electronic textbook. This means that a user would have the full searching power available in an electronic text format, while also having the benefits of true voice reading, and all available from the same multi-media disk playable on the standard multi-media computer.

Since standard electronic text formats are unsuitable for use with math and science books containing numerous graphs, equations, and diagrams, digital audio will make these kinds of books accessible at a level never before achieved with either Braille or audio cassette. Digital Audio also shows promise for use by students with learning disabilities who cannot effectively use printed textbooks and who find listening to synthetic speech from straight etext almost as difficult. Although the digital audio format is very new, it shows great promise for making K-12 math and science textbooks more accessible than ever before imagined.

Noble, S. L. (1998). "Hitting the books:" Accessible textbooks for k-12 math and science education. Information Technology and Disabilities E-Journal, 5(1-2).