Serving students with print disabilities with accessible books from NLS


Almost three years ago, during AASL’s national conference in Louisville, I met and talked with many of you about NLS—the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled, part of the Library of Congress. It was the first time NLS had exhibited at one of your events, and we were excited to spread the word about our program to school librarians—many of whom, I discovered, didn’t know about NLS or were a little confused by our name.

“You’re exactly who I need to talk to!” several said when they saw our audiobooks and braille magazines in the booth. “And this is all free?” others asked with enthusiasm—and not a small amount of surprise. (Answer: IT IS!)

We don’t know yet if we’ll be able to join you again in-person next October in Tampa. So I’ll take a few minutes here to tell you a little more about NLS and how we can help students you serve who have visual impairments, a reading disability or a physical disability that prevents them from using regular print materials.

Congress created what is now NLS in 1931 out of particular concern for US army veterans who were blinded during World War I. Our authorizing legislation has been amended several times since then, extending the service beyond adults who are blind to include children, and later to people with physical and reading disabilities.

Just last year, the law was changed to allow librarians, reading specialists, educators and school psychologists to certify the eligibility of applicants with reading disabilities. That’s made it much easier for people with dyslexia, for instance, to enroll in NLS—and why we want to be sure everyone in AASL knows about the services we offer during October for National Dyslexia Awareness month.  You can use NLS resources guides and activity sheets to build disability awareness for your entire school and give eligible students access to the NLS collection.

The program began with 157 books embossed in raised text and a fledgling network of 18 libraries. Ninety-one years later, the NLS collection includes more than 300,000 books and magazines in audio and braille, circulated through a network of 94 libraries from coast to coast.

In 1962, Congress authorized NLS to collect and maintain a library of accessible music scores and instructional texts. That collection—which includes material for vocalists, a wide variety of instruments and even concert band scores—is now the largest of its kind in the world.

Over the years, records were replaced by cassette tapes and then by digital cartridges. Now nearly half the books in the collection can be downloaded instantly and played on patrons’ personal smart devices using NLS’s BARD (Braille and Audio Reading Download) Mobile app.

We’ve improved the program in many other ways, too. Thanks to cooperative agreements with commercial audiobook publishers, NLS is making bestsellers and timely titles available to its patrons faster than ever before. NLS partner libraries around the country add locally recorded books of regional interest to the national collection every month. And the United States’ participation in the Marrakesh Treaty has allowed NLS to greatly expand its foreign-language offerings. (That exchange works both ways: this month, NLS shared 60 Ukrainian-language audiobooks from its collection with European libraries eager for material for visually impaired refugees.)

NLS has long provided free playback equipment for its talking books, and work is underway on a next-generation digital talking-book player that will incorporate voice commands. And recently, NLS launched an initiative to loan refreshable braille displays, which are used to read books in electronic braille, to patrons who would otherwise need expensive commercial models.

Our Collection Development Section has a staff of librarians who added more than 8,300 books to the collection last year. One of those librarians specializes in selecting books for young readers, from preschoolers through high school seniors. Books for younger readers are identified by age group in NLS’s online catalog, so they’re easy for patrons and librarians to find.

From children’s stories and biographies to science fiction and fantasy tales, bestsellers and required-reading classics like “Romeo and Juliet,” “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Their Eyes Were Watching God”: there are books for every age and interest in the NLS collection!

Every day we hear from patrons young and old about the impact NLS has had on their lives. We hear from their family members, too—like the mom in Washington State whose son was diagnosed with dyslexia in elementary school.

“He felt a lot of shame at not being able to read some of the books his fellow students were reading,” she told us. Soon after his diagnosis, though, she learned that NLS provides services not only to people with low or no vision, but also to people who have reading disabilities like dyslexia. Working with the youth librarian at the NLS network library in Seattle, she got her son enrolled.

“He received his digital talking-book player and started receiving books—Minecraft stories, Percy Jackson and more,” she said. “I noticed he spent less time watching TV and playing video games. He enjoyed listening in bed. He’s moved on to BARD downloads now and listens to books on an iPad. This service has really helped him learn to love reading, and I am so appreciative.”

Want to learn more about NLS? Here’s a good place to start: There you can download a flyer with a brief description of the program and details on how to enroll. At the bottom of the web page, there’s a “Find Your Library” link that will help you connect with the NLS network library that serves your state or community. They will be glad to answer your questions, provide resources for your schools and help eligible students enroll.

We also invite you to visit our main website,, and follow us on Facebook to find resources on disabilities for students, parents and educators.

Author: Mark Layman

Categories: Blog Topics


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