Center for Literacy and Disability Studies receives federal funding to enhance reading platform

The Center for Literacy and Disability Studies in the Department of Allied Health Sciences plans to expand its Tar Heel Reader platform, an online inventory of books designed to make reading accessible for individuals with disabilities, with a grant received from the U.S. Department of Education.

Center for Literacy and Disability Studies receives federal funding to enhance reading platform click to enlarge Gary Bishop (left) and Karen Erickson (right)

A literacy initiative housed in the UNC School of Medicine's Department of Allied Health Sciences has received a five-year, $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education to encourage learning through reading among children with severe cognitive disabilities.

Tar Heel Reader (THR), a eight-year-old collaborative venture between the DAHS' Center for Literacy and Disability Studies and Gary Bishop of UNC’s Department of Computer Science, will use the grant to enhance the THR platform. The center's director, Karen Erickson, PhD, and her team will use research to develop a new interface for THR, called Tar Heel Shared Reader (THSR). The shared reader experience will help educators, clinicians and families teach children with disabilities using books in the THR library.

Currently, the THR platform invites people from around the world to write and publish free, easy-to-read, user-generated books available on a wide range of topics. People of all reading abilities create drafts of books and use open-source image website, Flickr, to illustrate them.

Children and adults with cognitive disabilities -- many of whom have autism, cerebral palsy or Down syndrome -- also often have communication disorders. As many as 40 percent of children with cognitive disabilities have vision loss, and 30 percent can't hold a book by themselves. Books published on the THR platform address these needs through multiple online supports. The books can be downloaded to read offline or in printed format.

As of late August, THR’s authors have published nearly 50,000 books, which readers have accessed more than 9.5 million times. Users from more than 200 countries have read books on the site. While most of the books are geared toward beginner-level readers with disabilities learning to read English, books on the THR site are also read by adults learning English as a second language, high school students learning languages other than English, and people across the world accessing books on the site in 26 languages other than English.

"We designed Tar Heel Reader with an eye toward making it as simple as possible," Erickson said. "In its simplicity, it is meeting a big need."

Erickson and her team plan to integrate the simplicity into the THSR platform.

"It's about figuring out the next step of 'how do we help the world understand that all children can learn?'" Erickson said. "We can teach; the issue is exactly how and what supports are required. Ultimately, that's my motivation."

Throughout the five-year grant, Erickson and her team will work with partner schools to develop the THSR platform as well as the resources and supports required to implement that approach across the country. If the history of Tar Heel Reader holds, the resulting implementation model will reach much further than the United States.

Erickson holds the David E. and Dolores J. (Dee) Yoder Distinguished Professor in Literacy and Disability Studies. David is chair emeritus of the DAHS; the center is part of his legacy at the UNC School of Medicine.

Erickson said the best way for people to get involved is to go to THR, write a book or translate an existing book into a different language. Then, be sure to read that book with a child or someone learning to read.

Erickson also plans to enlist Bishop’s help to build the technology required to support the THSR platform. Erickson previously partnered with Bishop to launch the THR program, and looks forward to working with him again to help bring the platform to schools.

Bishop, who joined the faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill in May 1991, has worked to make educational materials accessible to students with disabilities.

Bishop became involved after a chance encounter with a visually impaired student on campus, who suggested that he join a project on campus to create resources for individuals with disabilities.

Of meeting Erickson, Bishop said, “She’s super smart and knows enough about what computers are capable of to have a good conversation about what can and can’t be done.”

Bishop said he enjoys witnessing the impact that the platform has on the individuals accessing the book collection on THR.

“They read them like crazy,” Bishop said of the platform registrants. He describes experiencing a sense of newfound purpose while working with Erickson to develop the THR platform.

“It’s, by a long shot, the most important thing I’ve done,” said Bishop. “This is amazing stuff. I have been blessed to have the opportunity to work on this project and contribute in this way.”

 The satisfaction is also shared with the students collaborating with Bishop on the program’s development and maintenance. 

“I’ve had students tell me, this is the first thing I’ve done in college that mattered.”

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