Bookshare and Assistive Technologies Help Students with Disabilities Gain Authentic Work Experiences and Independent Living Skills

Americas, February 10 2016

PALO ALTO, CALIF.: Bookshare, an online accessible library, free to U.S. students with qualifying print disabilities, is helping students at Riverview School in Massachusetts learn important work and life skills for successful transitions outside of school.

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Jean Goodwin with student using Bookshare. Ken Merrill observing class.

The ten-month vocational program, Getting Ready for the Outside World (GROW), is structured like a college campus. Students live in dorms, take classes, and participate in an extensive internship program to gain authentic work experiences and function independently.

Jean Goodwin, a special education teacher, says, “Students in this extraordinary learning and living environment focus on building their proficiencies around work and life skills, as well as academics. First, they learn to self-advocate, make mature choices, and take responsibility for their lives. Then, they learn to use assistive technologies and resources like Bookshare to experience multi-modal reading, a process that proves to be a linchpin to their success.”

Today, Bookshare serves hundreds of thousands of U.S. K-12 and postsecondary students who are blind, have low vision, a physical disability or a learning disability, like dyslexia. The collection contains close to 390,000 digital accessible books in a vast array of topics from education to careers, trades, how-to manuals, children’s literature, bestsellers, and more. U.S. students with qualifying print disabilities access the library at no cost through an award by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs.

GROW curriculum includes direct instruction in practical academic subjects. Some students participate in a school-to-work program to study basic food service techniques in order to pass a certification test and work in the school’s student-run restaurant. For this curriculum, instead of scanning the entire textbook into a computer, Goodwin wrote to the publisher to request the digital file be added to Bookshare, and it was.

One student, reading at a second grade level, wanted to read a book with his brother. He carried the book everywhere but was unable to understand the text. Goodwin signed him up for Bookshare, downloaded the book by its ISBN number, brought it up on screen, and put headphones on him. “As soon as the book began to play, he gave me a huge smile,” said Goodwin. “This experience changed his life! Before accessible books, he never fully comprehended what he read. Now he reads constantly. His fluency and vocabulary skills have improved. Assistive technologies and digital accessible books can motivate students to read well and often. They can read what their peers read. They don’t look different in class. This student was elated that he could learn the material and ace his test. His mother was thrilled!”

Ken Merrill, head of assistive technology, confirms Goodwin’s assessment of the benefits of accessible books and technologies. He and Goodwin routinely connect with parents to help them understand how students who qualify for Bookshare can log into the library and easily download books using an iPad or compatible software. They encourage parents to sign their child up for an individual membership so they can continue to read and learn after graduation.

Upon graduation, every student receives a career portfolio, and over the past two years, eighty students have also learned driver safety rules through a driver’s education program called In the Driver’s Seat. Merrill says, “Because the materials for the driver’s permit and the food service worker’s exams are in Bookshare, it helps our students navigate two important rites of passage in our vocational education program: becoming employed and becoming drivers. This gives them a real chance of finding their place in the world through authentic work experiences and lifelong learning.”

Bookshare is a global literacy initiative of Benetech, a Silicon Valley nonprofit technology company that provides software tools and services to address pressing social needs. For more information, visit

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