Although e-books have had mixed success in the classroom—with many students still preferring print books—new assistive technologies can make digital books more accessible to the visually impaired.
The new technologies go beyond just the usual text-to-audio provisions. One new e-book, Reach for the Stars: Touch, Look, Listen, Learn, created by software developer SAS through an education grant from the Space Telescope Science Institute, uses sound cues in a process called sonification to help demonstrate information presented in a diagram on an iPad screen. For example, when the user touches the screen, levels of pitch indicate the brightness of individual stars in the solar system relative to their surface temperature.
All of the content in the e-book can be accessed through read-aloud functions, including images. It also comes with a high-contrast feature for readers with low vision and an option for refreshable Braille displays. SAS also created tactile screen overlays to use with some images.
The e-book can also accommodate those with hearing impairments. All audio features are captioned and there is a compatibility option for use with hearing aids.
Reach for the Stars was written for the 10-12 age group, but its technologies could be applied to course materials at any level. As part of the grant funding, the e-book will be available free from the Apple iBooks Store this summer.