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Got E-text? An Innovative Approach to Alternative Media Production Using High-Volume Document Imaging Systems

Mary Anne Christiansen, M.Ed. Assistant Director
Ryan Collier, B.A. Assistive Technology Specialist
Disability Resource Center
University of Nevada, Reno

The Disability Resource Center (DRC) at the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) was created to meet the diverse educational needs of students with disabilities, to ensure these students have equal access to participate in, contribute to and benefit from all university programs. To accomplish this, the DRC offers a wide range of support services and accommodations including the general focus of this paper: alternative text for students with print access disabilities. As years go by new challenges and continual changes take hold; in this light, the way our services are delivered must too change. With great strides and innovation in technology comes a responsibility to relentlessly seek out inventive new ways to provide access to students with disabilities. We will look at our own changes and challenges as we moved from audio-cassette tapes to high-volume documents, and focus on the implementation of this technology-by no means new to the high-tech industry, but certainly a flagship model in disability services.

It was only several years ago that the DRC's primary method of service delivery for most students who qualified for alternative text was cassette tapes. Qualified students with print access disabilities would request text on tape for their classroom materials and the DRC provided these materials from a number of sources, primarily student readers and Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D). This method did provide the students with access to their classroom materials, but caused storage issues for the DRC as well as quality control and administrative headaches. In addition, cassette tapes are not a searchable medium, hence a student listening to Frankenstein might find it easier going than a student trying to find page 432 of their biology textbook on tape. While the DRC did make use of OCR (Optical Character Recognition) software to digitally prepare materials in Braille for several students who were visually impaired, we did not have the resources, staff or equipment to use it for the vast majority of students with print access disabilities.

As the number of students the DRC was serving continued to increase, it was beginning to appear that the DRC might soon find itself unable to meet student alternative text requests in a timely manner. About this time, the DRC received some texts from publishers in electronic format who were using Adobe Acrobat Capture software for their OCR process in conjunction with high-speed scanners to meet their high-volume, digital processing needs. This caught our attention as something that we as disability service providers might be able to utilize to meet the increasing needs of our growing student population.

Through a first in the nation institutional discount on Adobe Capture, a generous donation of a high-speed scanner from state of Nevada Vocational Rehabilitation and funds from the University of Nevada, Reno Student Technology Grant, the DRC was able to create an Acrobat Capture workstation and began digitizing classroom materials for students with disabilities. As predicted, over the past two years, the DRC has seen a huge increase in the numbers of students we serve including those who qualify for alternative text services. The creation of our alternative text process using Adobe Capture has enabled us to process over 1,100 titles to date, and last semester the DRC served close to 100 students for their alternative text needs; we received over 500 requests for texts in the Fall 2005 semester alone. Our current delivery method not only enhances accessibility but encourages self-reliance in our students.

Current practices in the development of alternative course materials do not measure up to the demands of students and their material-intensive classes. In a nutshell, the problem disability service providers are faced with is that software and hardware designed specifically for individual use is being employed to produce course materials for many students, but does not yield the results in quality or time-efficiency required by the law. Moreover, creating alternative course materials is such new territory for disability service providers that a real-world standard has not yet emerged. In dealing with book publishers and many other post-secondary institutions we have discovered that different institutions and organizations develop electronic text in a variety of file formats. Among the most popular are plain text files, rich text documents, Microsoft Word documents, HTML, XML, and Adobe's Portable Document Format (PDF). A proprietary format was also developed by Kurzweil Educational for their scan-and-read software solution for students. When the great need for alternative text materials arose, Kurzweil was already in place in disability service centers and assistive technology labs to fill the immediate need for students with print access disabilities and the disability service providers responsible for providing their alternative course materials. It seemed a logical move to increase the use of Kurzweil or work with affordable desktop OCR software systems like OmniPage Pro to develop materials for students. In retrospect, the niche that these systems fill is so minuscule compared to other technology developers, why not look to similar solutions, perhaps intended for other purposes, that can produce similar results and handle high volumes of materials in short order.

Utilizing high-volume document imaging systems has become a viable solution for disability service providers and very effective at the DRC. High-volume document imaging systems have long been developed and in recent years, great advancements and expansions in document imaging have made large-scale systems both manageable and affordable. And with the increase in numbers everywhere across the country, these systems become mandatory to provide appropriate accommodations for students with disabilities. Adobe Acrobat Capture, Kofax Ascent Capture and others have been developing groupware and network-managed document imaging systems that can be distributed across five-to-ten-workstation workgroups to develop accessible materials for roughly the same cost of equipping a single station with Kurzweil 3000. That's not to say that Kurzweil is not a useful tool for students' personal access and learning, but that the system itself was not designed to accommodate the amount of production required of disability service centers. With all of the different options currently available, choosing a single standard seems irrelevant; nonetheless, to meet the diverse needs of our clients we have to be able to tailor course materials to their specific needs and preferences. The real-world end goal of electronic text is to deliver a document that can be equivalent to the printed page while meeting Universal Design standards for accessible and searchable documents.

To really give our clients as many options as possible for their electronic course materials, we have implemented the use of Adobe's PDF format. Part of the reason we chose this format was that a high volume PDF creation system could easily be implemented with the help Adobe's unique document imaging environment, Acrobat Capture. Capture is a groupware package that allows us to connect multiple workstations together, share processor power, and work as a production team to meet deadlines, ensuring the highest quality output along the way. It combines into one software package scanning and image enhancement tools, Optical Character Recognition (OCR), as well as document and workflow management.

The OCR engine used in Adobe Capture is one of the most advanced OCR engines available and updates are commonly released for the OCR module itself. Two key features that set Acrobat Capture apart are in the area of quality control and output options. In quality control the Capture system allows us to enhance large numbers of images efficiently, chapter by chapter rather than page by page for instance. Using optional plug-ins for the Capture environment has proven the ultimate tool in document imaging. Scan Fix (Pegasus Imaging) is a background utility which allows for detailed image enhancement and clean-up. Typically, Scan Fix is configured on a per-job basis to yield the highest quality results. This allows for the easiest materials to be processed at optimal speeds. In addition, with the right configuration, Scan Fix makes materials that are seemingly impossible, doable-easy even. Beyond the clean-up tools in Scan Fix, Acrobat Capture has a special feature that allows for the customization of font-sets. Using simple eye- or hierarchy-question models to refine and identify fonts brings the OCR accuracy near 99% without user intervention. Adobe's Capture makes effortless the tasks of selecting page regions for OCR and quickly identifying and correcting unrecognized words and phrases. It automates this process by estimating, based on built-in dictionary databases, and automatically collecting errors in character recognition. The Quick Fix utility quickly jumps to these words for editing and final submission. As a final step in the creation process, Adobe Capture allows us to check for and correct read order errors. Contemporary publishing practices and design standards of high graphic content in college textbooks make this an absolute necessity in our process. For the most part, Capture does an excellent job in identifying read order with multi-column and graphic-inundated texts; minimal user-intervention is required. The quality control features are used only when needed.

The output options in Adobe Capture mark another forte of the program's efficiency. Capture enables us to output into PDF, RTF, Plain Text, and HTML all at the same time. Having all of these options expedites the customization of choice electronic text documents for an individual's needs. What's more, with the sole production of the PDF document, we can produce any one of these formats post-document creation. In doing this we can even refit our documents for classic mediums such as audio and Braille.

Adobe capture gives us a wide variety of options in creating electronic text while holding up to real world standards. Because the PDF is not only useful in accessible electronic text, but is itself an industry standard, its use provides a route to increased autonomy and independence among our clients-an exceptional ambition of all disability services. And this independence is fostered further by using the high-volume system in conjunction with personal tools like Kurzweil to provide access. Students on our campus know that they can bring in materials for us to take care of; they too rely on the availability of Kurzweil, ReadPlease and other software available on our assistive technology workstations where they can, on their own, prepare their own materials in short order.

Using high-volume systems can certainly be arduous in initial configuration and day-to-day management. Managing the sheer numbers of text conversion requests and the operation of the system itself has certainly been our greatest challenge. But this, in many ways, is comparable to “growing-pains” in any business. As demand increases, we have taken a pro-active approach to the management of our system. We employ 6 part-time student workers, one of whom spends their time organizing and managing a database tracking system-a much-needed component of any high-volume process. Student workers are affordable and provide a wealth of information with their expertise in technology and their experiences as students; we have been lucky to find a number of wonderful student workers to get the bulk of text conversion work done.

When looking at all of the options available for document imaging in the specific niche of accessible course material production, high-volume document imaging is becoming the most viable option that truly meets the needs of disability service providers. There are no licensing costs in distributing fully searchable and accessible PDF documents and to boot, it's simply more cost effective in the long-term for disability service providers to manage and maintain a high-volume document imaging system in place of solutions that were intended for individual use. Cost aside, providing a high-quality product is the top priority; when it comes to providing students with disabilities a comparable alternative to traditional course materials, cost should be on the back burner.