Alternate Media Resources

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Alternate Media Resources

Alternate text is an important accommodation for students with disabilities that impact their ability to read standard print. Receiving textbooks and other instructional materials in a timely manner and in an accessible format is often critical to a student’s success. The following is meant as an overview to a complex topic. There is rarely only one way to provide alternate text, but sometimes, even with advanced technology, there may not be a suitable alternative for some materials. In these cases, the instructor and the disability service office should work with the student to devise an equivalent educational experience. Please note this overview focuses on print related disabilities, but is not meant as a comprehensive guide to issues related to visual perception. Also, students with disabilities that primarily impact hearing or movement may find some of this information helpful, but this is not meant as a complete resource for those areas. Technology in this field can change rapidly and the reader should always check the primary sources for current software capabilities and specifications.

E-book Publishers and Distributors


Educational publishers are becoming more aware of the need to make their products accessible to students with disabilities. However, it is still uncommon to find a commercial product that is fully accessible, inclusive of the fact that accessibility means different things to different students. Students with disabilities should always check the publisher’s return policy to be sure they can get a full refund if the product is not accessible. They should also investigate if the publisher has posted any information regarding accessibility on their website or other product information portal. The disability service office is still obligated to provide an accessible alternate format if the commercial product proves to be unusable by the student.

Retailers and Distributors

Many publishers use companies such as VitalSource to distribute their electronic textbooks. A distributor may be more aware of the need for accessibility, due to the fact that they sell products from a variety of publishers. However, they may not have the technological access or legal right to modify the publisher source file. As with buying directly from the publisher, students should carefully review the distributor’s policy in regards to returns and refunds. Retailers, such as Amazon, are also getting in to the business of selling or renting educational materials, especially used print textbooks. Retailers may be more hit-or-miss in regards to accessibility, selection, return policies, etc., but are still worth investigating.

Open Educational Resources (OER)

OER generally refers to educational materials that are distributed for free or at very low cost, often without a technical protection mechanism to prevent copying (sometimes referred to as Digital Rights Management or “DRM”). Regardless of their cost or point of origin, these materials must be made available to students with disabilities in accessible formats the same as with commercially-produced products. Since OER is usually not distributed through the same channels as commercial instructional materials, the disability service office may have to search for the method to contact the organization responsible for the material.

Publisher Request

While publishers have made strides to improve the accessibility of their products, the disability service office may wish to contact the publisher and request that a file be provided at no cost to the college, as long as the student has purchased or rented a copy of the printed material (usually a textbook).

AccessText Network

While colleges have been requesting files from publishers for about 20 years, it’s only since 2009 that the process has been standardized through a portal known as the AccessText Network, or ATN. ATN started with eight publishers and now has more than 24. Any post-secondary institution in the United States is eligible for a free account, and service is expected to begin soon in Canada.

Publisher Request

Even if a publisher is not a member of the AccessText Network, the college disability service office can contact a publisher and request an electronic file. The disability service office staff should check to see if their state has passed any legislation that may apply to these type of requests. The Association of American Publishers (AAP) operates a portal designed to make it easier to find accessibility contact information for many educational publishers. Visit to use the service and for further information.


It should be noted that files provided from publishers are almost always considered ‘’as is,” and the college is responsible for any additional formatting needed to make it accessible to their student. The good news is that the files are not secured and the college can use a variety of technologies to create audio files, braille, large print, or whatever format the student requires. Some of these remediation techniques overlap with information provided for in-house production (below).

Accessible Media Libraries

There are a number of library services that specialize in reading materials in accessible formats. Not all of them carry a large amount of educational material, but all of these resources may have the right book in the right format at the right time for a particular student.

Learning Ally

Learning Ally (formerly Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic) concentrates on educational materials, including full length textbooks from grade school through post-graduate. The books are read by subject matter expert volunteers and are available for download, and by other means. Students with print related disabilities can join directly, and/or their college can become a member and order books for them. One drawback is that the large number of textbooks in use makes it impossible for all current materials to be made available.


Bookshare has a vast library, including many educational and general interest books. Their membership policy is similar to Learning Ally, but their books are primarily in electronic form. This means that the audio narration is provided by synthetic speech, which has improved dramatically in realism in the past few years.

The National Library Service (NLS)

The NLS has a general library collection, so if the student already has a membership they may find it useful for some of their school materials. The NLS has been around for many years and has a large catalog of leisure and non-fiction materials in their collection.

Project Gutenberg

Project Gutenberg is a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving literature by converting it to electronic form and making it freely available via the internet. Students may find many classic older works, which are no longer protected by copyright, in the catalog. They should be careful to check that the version assigned by their professor does not contain any additional material, such as critical commentary, that is required for class.

Public and Campus Libraries

Students should not discount their campus library or even their local public library. The campus library may not have accessible versions of their materials but may have computer workstations with assistive technologies, such as magnification and text to speech. Public libraries may have some books in audio format or large print, although they are likely to be limited to leisure reading and best-sellers. Students and other persons with print related disabilities may wish to advocate with their library to ensure that any system adopted to allow patrons to access library content online should be accessible.


There are companies and other organizations that can produce alternate format materials, either on a non-profit or for-profit basis. Like any vendor, the school should do their research on quality and compare prices whenever possible.


Producing braille is a specialized activity that requires training and certification to be performed accurately. Colleges may find that a local agency, or even an individual, can help with smaller and simpler projects. However, transcribing and embossing a full length textbook with complex content is generally the domain of larger organizations with experience in educational materials. One resource for locating braille producers is the Accessible Media Producers Database, maintained by the American Printing House for the Blind.


While there are many companies that work with electronic files, most of them service the commercial eBook market and may not have any experience creating accessible materials. Colleges may want to consider AMAC Accessibility Solutions, which has experience with converting educational materials to different accessible formats. Creating e-text from a printed book is still a labor intensive process, and the college may find it’s worth investing in their own production capability (see In-House Production below).

Large Print

Large print is a useful format for students who have a vision impairment, but it can be more challenging to produce than it may seem. If a book can be enlarged on a good quality copier to the font size the student can use, the process is more time consuming than difficult. The enlarged pages can be bound in a number of ways depending on the student’s preference. Enlarging the text beyond that point is where the most challenges reside. The book page will likely need to be broken up to fit on multiple pages, which means the content may be split. This could involve laying out the page again, which could require graphic design expertise. The college may need to consult with the student to find the optimum balance between convenience and usability. Note that enlarging the text using software or a specialized device may be an alternate or complementary option.


Audio is a popular format for many students with print related disabilities. As noted above, Learning Ally is one source of pre-recorded audiobooks, and Bookshare books can be read aloud using synthetic speech. To produce audio files in-house, the college would most likely start with a file from the publisher, or a file created in-house (see below). Once the book is in electronic format there are a number of options for audio. One is to use a program that reads the text aloud using synthetic speech (see Assistive Technology section below). These type of programs can do the reading, and some can also create mp3s, or other audio format, so the student can play back the material on a personal device, including smart phones. While there are many companies that can produce audio books read by human narrators, their focus is on the commercial audiobook market, rather than educational materials. Even if they have the subject matter expertise to produce a textbook, the cost and time needed would be prohibitive for a college to attempt.

In-House Production

While alternate media production can be challenging, there are many things that a disability service office can do on their own, and with the assistance of their bookstore, library, and even graphic arts department.

Preparing a book for scanning

The most common way to convert a print book to electronic format is to remove the spine of the book and scan the pages. This works best with new books, as used books may have unwanted pen marks or highlighting. Larger schools may wish to invest in a machine to cut off the book spine, which can run several thousand dollars but will last a long time. Smaller schools should investigate resources such as their print shop or copy shops in their vicinity.

Scanning a book

High speed scanners are those that can accept a stack of pages and scan both sides at a rapid pace. There are scanners that work without removing the spine but the process is much slower. A college may wish to invest in a higher quality machine that can keep up with demand, rather than get by with low end consumer models. Canon makes several models commonly used and well respected by disability service offices.

Performing optical character recognition (OCR)

Once the book has been scanned, the next step is OCR. FineReader and OmniPage are two well-known programs. While this process is automatic, the text must be proof-read and corrected as recognition errors are unavoidable. Also, pages with complex layouts or graphics may take more intensive editing as the software can only do so much.

Conversion to final format

Once the text has been recognized, proof-read, and formatted, it may be ready, or it may require further processing, depending on the student’s needs. This could include conversion to braille, enlargement, or conversion to audio format. There are many variations for each of these formats, and given that the technology to perform the conversion, and that used by the student to consume the material are constantly evolving, it behooves the disability service office to stay up to date with trends in the field (see Additional Resources below).

Transferring materials to students

Generally speaking, the disability service office should ensure they have a secure copy of any electronic file of copyrighted material before providing it to a student. The student usually provides proof that they have purchased or rented a copy of the book. These policies may vary in specifics based on the college’s interpretation of legal requirements. Once ownership has been established, the disability service office may use any number of methods to securely transfer the file to the student. While it was common to ‘burn’ files to a CD or DVD, or place them on a USB memory stick (aka thumb drive), increasingly cloud-based services are being used, such as Dropbox.

Assistive Technology

Generally speaking, assistive technology, or AT, is that which is used by an individual to adapt or adjust information to the user. Glasses and hearing aids are examples of commonly used AT. There are several categories of AT related to print disabilities, but due to rapidly advancing technologies, the line between the accessibility of a product, such as an etextbook, and a student’s AT is sometimes blurred. A college may wish to have some or all of these technologies available in a setting where students with disabilities can access them in a similar fashion to computer and technology labs made available to the general student population. This may involve site licenses, which many AT vendors offer. The goal is to ensure that all students have equal access to the materials and resources they need to participate fully in the academic environment.


This refers to software designed to facilitate reading electronic text on a computer, tablet, smartphone, or other screen based device. Some ereaders feature some AT features, such as read-out-loud or font enlargement. Most commercial ereaders are tied to a particular company or platform, such as Amazon’s kindle. General purpose ereaders can usually open many types of files, but may be prevented from opening ebooks sold by specific vendors using digital rights management technology.

AT Reading Systems

This refers to reading systems specifically marketing to the disabled community with features designed to address specific problems. These systems usually can read text aloud, but can also highlight sentences or words as they are read, or display words one at a time, or provide various adjustments of color and magnification.

Screen Readers

A screen reader is intended to allow the user to operate a computer solely through keyboard commands and audio output. These products are primarily designed for individuals who are blind and who rely completely or primarily on non-visual information.


Another commonly used AT is used by people who need to enlarge their reading material. This may be done entirely on their computer screen, or they may have a dedicated monitor for this purpose, possibly including a camera so that other types of material can be enlarged.

Additional Resources

The challenge of producing alternate media in a timely manner to meet the needs of students with print-related disabilities is constantly changing as technology and student expectations evolve. One thing that remains constant is the benefit of peer-to-peer support and networking. There are a number of national and regional conferences targeting disability services, and there are usually multiple sessions dedicated to alternate media in all its aspects. Here are a few of the better-known national resources.

Tools for Life App Finder

AccessGA: Georgia's Accessible IT Initiative

Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Accessibility MOOC

International Association of Accessibility Professionals (IAAP)

CSUN Conference on Disabilities Conference

Accessing Higher Ground Conference

M-Enabling Summit

Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD)

The National Center for College Students with Disabilities (NCCSD)

Augsburg College Resource for Free and Low Cost Assistive Technology

Alternate media guidelines (HTCTU)

Alternate media tutorials (HTCTU)