Show 69 - AccessText Network

Listen to Show 69

This week, I talk to Robert Martinengo from the AccessText Network, a way to make requesting electronic texts from publishers a while lot easier. Visit them at http://accesstext.org/.

TRANSCRIPT FOLLOWS

Beth Case: Hello, and welcome to the Disability411 Podcast. This is episode 69 and I am your host, Beth Case. Today I have an interview with Robert Martinengo from Access Text, which is a really great organization that will help you get your college textbooks in eText format a whole lot easier. It's just a really great way to contact the publishers and request what you need. So rather than me talking any more about it, let's go straight to the interview and you can hear it from Robert himself.

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Beth: Today I'm going to be talking with Robert Martinengo from AccessText. Robert, thanks so much for talking with me today.

Robert Martinengo: Sure, thank you, Beth.

Beth: So, let's just start out with you telling our audience a little bit about yourself and what you do.

Robert: Sure. First off is that I actually work for the Alternative Media Access Center and we're located in Athens, Ga. We are the, in a sense, the contractor that was hired to develop and run the AccessText Network, we refer to it often as the AccessText Network. So, I've been working with the Alternative Media Access Center, which we refer to as AMAC, another acronym there, AMAC, for little over three years. And AMAC, just to give you a little bit of a pciture of that, AMAC provides services for the University system of Georgia. That would be the public universities in Georgia and we also provide some services for private universities and some K-12 schools even outside of Georgia. Those would be generally alternative media services, such as Braille production, eText production and alternate assistive technology support. So that is the organization that is here in Athens and we were approached, basically, we worked with the Association of American Publishers to develop and run the AccessText Network. So I just want to make it, kinda that relationship, clear, as far as the overall structure of the organization.

Beth: Sure. That's good. So, tell us about the AccessText Network and what it is.

Robert: Ok! It really grew out of the publisher -- the publishing industry has been aware for many years that accessibility of printed materials is an issue that is, that schools need, are addressing. They have been aware of it, I would say, probably at two levels. One being K-12, grade school level and that's really somewhat separate from what's happening at AccessText, but they've definitely been aware of things like the Chaffee Amendment of 1996 and the development of the NIMAS format, the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard, that's hard to say!

Beth: (laughs) That's quite a mouthful!

Robert: But, they were instrumental -- again I'm referring to generally academic publishers and big textbook publishing companies. In higher education this is, the Federal mandates are different in higher education, so it's been a little bit more piecemeal of a response and I would say it started about 10 years ago, a little bit over 10 years ago, the state of California passed some legislation that obligated publishers to provide an electronic file to be used by students with disabilities. So that kinda got the foot in the door, California was the pioneer, as they often are.

Beth: I was actually working in California in postsecondary disability services at that time, so, I remember. It caused quite a panic among a lot of people.

Robert: Well, sure. What school was that?

Beth: I was working at Fresno State.

Robert: Oh, ok, right. Certinaly it was the three state university systems, excuse me, state college systems or higher education systems. Community college systems. I ended up working for the Community College system. Then of course, the State universities and the University of California. So, being that initial effort, the initial state legislation, I think that put the publishers on notice that this was going to become more important in the future. And I began, the story began for me, I was working at Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic, which I'm sure you're well aware of, in the Los Angeles unit. And I became aware of that this legislation had been passed and that the Community College system was preparing a Center. Basically, they put out a grant application for a central coordination point and production center. And I applied for a job and began working there in 2002. That's the Alternate Text Production Center. So I'm been pretty involved with this for almost 10 years, directly involved with working with the publishers to get files. So I would say there's pretty much a direct link from that original legislation in California to the establishment of the AccessText Network. You know, over the years, this grew year by year as the demand for this material would grow, the publishers began, certainly understood that they needed to provide some kind of coordinated response. And I think that AccessText is the outcome, at least to this point, of that response.

Beth: What exactly does AccessText do?

Robert: To sort of restate the issue a little bit, the school, colleges, serve their students with disabilities, when that disability would be a print related disability. So the college is attempting to provide an accommodation for that book. So that accommodation could be based on an electronic text file. It would be the equivalent of the student's text book. Well, generally speaking, you can produce those, or provide those in one of two ways. You can make it yourself, this would be the school of course scanning the book, if they don't want to type it from scratch! Or you can try and acquire it. and since these aren't really available commercially, you would request it from the publisher. This is is essentially what the initial legislation in California said, is that if the school requests it from the publisher, the publisher will provide an electronic file. So that became the basis for the AcessText Network, to simplify and streamline the process of the school requesting the file and the publisher providing it. So it is somewhat limited, you might want to consider it a portal that streamlines somewhat the clerical or administrative aspects of requesting these files and having them transferred, some of the technical end.
That's really what we focus on.

Beth: So, if I am working in Disability Services and I'm responsible for providing a text book, say, to a blind student or someone with a reading disability, instead of me trying to figure out who to contact, first of all, who are all the publishers of the books, what number do I contact or what email or what address do I contact them to request a electronic version, I can just go to AccessText, one place and start that process?

Robert: That's exactly right. That was the intention of AccessText from the beginning was to simplify that process. So we were very fortunately to have eight charter member publishers who came together to provide some of the initial seed funding and those include three of the largest textbooks, really, in the world. So already, right off the bat with AccessText,you're going to find close to, maybe, from what we understand from the marketshare, 9 out of 10 textbooks are published by the companies that are already members of AccessText. There's still plenty of smaller companies and books where you might have to contact the publisher directly, but this is going to simplify the process of requesting files from those big publishers.

Beth: Sometimes, getting a response from publishers hasn't always been that easy for some schools. Does working through AccessText, do the publishers tend to respond more quickly, or does it really make a differenec whether or not you're going through AcessText?

Robert: Well, yes, that's certainly one of the things we worked very hard on with the initial agreement with the publishers, was to obtain a commitment to respond to the request more consistently. And, you know, to be fair, before AccessText, there really wasn't any hard data that I was aware of, statistical data, or metrics, however you want to call it, on thsoe response times. Plenty of anecdotal data.

Beth: Oh yeah!

Robert: You kind of remember the sore points, you know the files that didn't show up.

Beth: Oh, yes. The bad parts always seem more relevant, you remember them more. Yeah, you're right.

Robert: So you may receive three out of four things just fine, and then it's the one that doesn't come in...

Beth: That's the one you remember, that you tell everybody about. We have selective memory.

Robert: Exactly. Now, with AccessText, we're getting statistics that probably, actually, the fulfillment rate, if you want to call it that, has been very very high and I think that within, naturally, with AccessText, the publishers are more aware that this data is being now available. But I think overall, I think it's the same response, generally speaking, the same response that they have been providing, at least within the last -- now, remember, I think the publishers have been improving every year. And there's a couple of reasons for that. One is just being aware that this is happening, they've had to build systems to respond to these requests, but also, what we've come to learn is their own technology has changed and more of these files are better, that the publishers have created better archives and are more organized for reasons supporting their own business, not just to respond to this. But with the rise of electronic book,s I think the publishers have become more aware that they need to have these files organized. So instead of, in the old days, you may have received a PDF file, but that PDF file was prepared strictly for print edition and it might have markings on the page that were more related to the book being printed. Now, you might still get those today, but you;re more likely to get a PDF file that has been optimized for Web delivery, a smaller file, cleaned up as it were. Those might not be perfect for assistive technology, they're certainly a lot easier to deal with in terms of creating an accessible version for the student.

Beth: I was actually going to ask you about that because often what you do get -- now,I have been out of it for a couple of years, so things may have changed a lot, but what we would get is things that were formatted the printers, so they had all kinds of markup on them, or we get inaccessible PDFs, which, I mean a PDF that's not made to be accessible is pretty worthless without a lot of work on the part of the school that gets it. Or just really odd formats that took a lot, a lot of work to clean up and make accessible. Have you seen a change in the accessibility of the files that publishers actually provide?

Robert: Well, to be perfectly honest, I don't think the changes have really come about in that sense. My understanding, again, I don't really have total access to the back rooms of the publishers and their processes and them can be very, where they have been very cooperative with AccessText, of course they're still competitive with each other. But, within the files being provided through the network, I don't think there's been a huge improvement within the accessibility itself. Let's say that the most difficult problems or kind of egregious files probably dropped off and you're more likely to get a PDF that doesn't require a large overhaul, but the idea of the PDF being marked up for accessibility specifically, I don't think that's really consistently happening. Again, these are still primarily products directed, files that are aimed, that were created for a commercial, it's going to be sold as a web product or something else. So in that sense, I haven't seen a huge...

Beth: It's still a step forward because if the process of getting those files is easier and quicker, then the schools get them sooner and have more time to do what needs to be done to actually make the files very usable by the students. So I think that it's definitely a step in the right direction. And I know there are talks with the publishers, I know AHEAD is very involved with that and so forth. So hopefully we'll see an improvement even in that area before too long.

Ok, so how does a college or a university have access to your service?

Robert: Well, it's very very simple. We really set up the process to be, in a lot of ways, of course we have the advantage of experience. We know from our own experience what the schools were, what their needs were from our own experience and the schools we work with here at AMAC. So we really modeled the process as closely as possible on what was already being done. I would say that maybe the biggest challenge was getting the publishers to agree on one common membership form. Everyone likes to do things a little bit different!

Beth: Oh, sure! Yeah.

Robert: So when you come up with a committee, suddenly the differences add up...

Beth: ... and you have a 20 page application!

Robert: Exactly! That covers everything. But once that was finalized, we were able to just post that on the web as a click-through membership form. So to become a member, you're really just filling out a form. You would go to our website, which is AccessText.org and there's a link right on there that says "Become A Member". So look at the membership form, we also have a text copy if you want to print it out and run it by your legal department before you sign it, or electronically sign it. The point being that the school is really just providing us with information about themself. And of course, our responsibility is to make sure that the person filling out the form is a legitimate requester, that it is a school within the United States, this person really does work and have responsibility for Disability Services. Because this is an open web form. Part of what we do is verify that the school is who they say they are and a legitimate member. Once they've done that, we actually ask them to take, the school staff to take an orientation session, which is about a 75 - 90 minute session to introduce them to the application, the AccessText application itself because we want to make sure that when they get started on it, that they -- we want to answer some of the initial questions that they have and show them their way around the application application, then we get them set up with an account, after they've done the orientation. And hopefully, then at that point they're ready to get up and running and making requests right away.

Beth: So you said that you check to make sure that it's a legitimate applicant. So who qualifies? Is it just colleges and universities or do you do K-12 as well? Who qualifies for membership?

Robert: That would be right. Colleges and universities within the United States at this point. It can be public and private, 2-year or 4-year. It does need to be an institute of higher education. We cannot accept K-12 school at this time or an individual student or faculty member. Generally if we gen an inquiry like that, we'll work them them and try to show them what options are available for them and kind of direct them that maybe they would need to communicate with -- if they are a student, make sure that they understand they would need to work with their Students with Disabilities Office.

Beth: And maybe let their Disability Services Office know about it. They might not be aware of it and if the student is, you can say "Ok, students! Go tell your Disability Services Office that this is available and encourage them to sign up."

Is there a charge for membership?

Robert: Not initially, at this point. The charter publishers that I mentioned did give us sufficient funding to operate the network for at least a full year, which we're in the middle of now, it's kind of our beta period. But that funding will really only take us through to about June of this year, 2010, and at that point, to operate the network at that point, we would need to collect a membership fee from the schools. That hasn't been set yet. We're estimating that will be in the $500 a year range as a member ship fee.

Beth: Ok, that's good to know. So sign up now and take advantage before that goes into effect. So how many schools have signed up so far?

Robert: Well, let me take a look at the applications. I can get you the latest figures. I know it's well over 600.

Beth: Wow!

Robert: But I can look. There's been people signing up all the time, so let me check. The number of individual schools we have signed up right now is 680.

Beth: My goodness! That's a lot!

Robert: There's also about another 150 schools represented because several of our members are what are known as alternate media centers and this would include the Alternate Text Production Center in California and of course our own AMAC here in Georgia and there are a couple others that have joined us. These centers, like for instance, the Alternate Text Production Center works with 110 community colleges in California. So the Alternate Text Production Center is making a lot of requests on behalf of those schools, those community colleges in California.

Beth: So you're actually reaching a lot more schools than what that number reflects. And that number reflects a lot!

Robert: I would say over 800 schools are represented.

Beth: All right. You know, our listeners might not be aware that AccessText is relatively new. It only launched last August, right?

Robert: That's correct.

Beth: So, I'm really impressed with how much you've managed to accomplish in a relatively short time. What's on the horizon? You have anything else in the works?

Robert: Well, as you talked about a little earlier, there's still a big challenge with the accessibility of these files themselves. You made a very good point that receiving a file is really the first step of the process, there may be a certain amount of work that needs to be done to make sure it can, that it is suitable to be used by a student. Really, the student is the end user of the file.

Beth: Right.

Robert: We believe that AccessText, this is part of our original charter, it's just something that will take a little while to develop, is really to be a forum to make sure that the publishers are aware that we'd like to see their commercial products -- the electronic book market itself is developing very rapidly, as you know -- and we'd like to see that these commercial products themselves are accessible. And we think AccessText can be a forum where these issues can be be discussed and the different stakeholders can interact and kind of work together to make sure that as commercial products are developed and eBooks evolve, accessibility and students with disabilities are considered an integral part of that process and that accessibility is a key, as we go forward, is a key indicator that, so that the need for requesting a file and going through that process...

Beth: Absolutely! That makes so much sense. I'm also a student and as people are probably tired of hearing me say, I'm in grad school. I have two of my textbooks that I bought electronic versions of this year just because I didn't want to be lugging around think books. And it would make so much sense as more and more textbooks are becoming available in electronic version for just the average-Joe student like me to buy. Well, if they're made accessible, then a student with a disability can buy the electronic version of the book instead of the hard copy, it's already accessible, they don't need special requests or to do anything different or wait for their book to be converted. That's a brilliant idea. I'm glad you guys are doing that.

Robert: Again, as you know, even the commercial electronic book market is a little different every year, there's new products being introduced and there's was course, Amazon introduced the Kindle and there's been all kinds of interesting opportunities, so we want to make sure. Right, it's going to be a challenge to make sure accessibility is kept, it's our job to help push that front and center so that as people get excited that these new products come out, they don't forget that there are students with different access needs that have to be, their needs need to be incorporated into these new products. So we'll a focus on that and I think AccessText is a great place for those sort of discussions to happen.

Beth: If somebody wanted to contribute to this discussion, do you have a way that someone who has some concerns or has some thought that they would like brought up to the publishers when you're having these interactions, do you have a way for people to submit comments or ideas?

Robert: They could definitely come to AccessText.org and join our mailing list. We do have an Advisory Committee which is made up of individuals representative of different schools across the country. So, through our wiki on our website, you can see the names of those individuals. So that is probably the main forum that we use to gather input from the field, but we welcome comments from the field that anybody would like to make of a general nature, they can input those through the website.

Beth: That sounds fantastic, I'm pretty excited about what you all are doing and of course if Disability411 can be of help to you in any way or just help by getting the word out as new things are developed, please be sure to let us know.

Robert: Well, great, I really appreciate your interest in AccessText and feel free to contact us again.

Beth: Alright, Robert , thanks again for talking with me this morning and we'll be back in a minute.

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Beth: And that wraps up this episode. Don't forget, as always, to visit our website at Disability411.com, email me at disability411@jinkle.com and send us your comments, your feedback, your suggestions for topics. So until next time, this is Beth Case with the Disability411 podcast.

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