Steffon Middleton describes himself as a perfectionist. In 2009, Steffon graduated from the Alabama School for the Blind with a 4.2 grade point average which he earned by taking advanced placement courses in addition to his high school curriculum. Steffon now attends Gadsden Community College in Gadsden, Alabama where he is a straight-A student who has made his college deans list each semester. Steffon says he earned his academic honors by taking careful notes, studying hard and accessing his assigned texts in digital Braille. He has been a member of Bookshare since his junior year in highschool and continues to download college texts from the Bookshare collection.
Before graduating as valedictorian of his high school class, Steffon joined with Bookshare to make two videos which demonstrated how he read books in digital Braille from the Bookshare library. Steffon uses a portable device called a BrailleNote that allows him to read digital Braille on a refreshable panel. Steffon appears in a Bookshare how-to video and a video profile where he is joined by his teacher Jill Dunaway who helped him become a Bookshare member.
Steffon, who says he’s now accustomed to “breakneck speed education,” says he now serves as a note taker at his college for other visually impaired students and takes monitored multiplechoice tests on his BrailleNote. Since he takes excellent class notes, Steffon says he can often avoid purchasing textbooks and rely instead on classroom instruction. This is not true, however, in his English classes where he must acquire the literature texts needed to complete his reading assignments. According to Steffon, the hardcopy Braille versions of these books are of limited usefulness because they are printed on reams of paper connected top to bottom instead of side to side. “It is very hard to sort through and if one of the pages breaks off from the rest, the text is pretty much finished,” says Steffon. “I have had many cases where pages of my story have gone missing.”
When he must read a specific book for a class assignment, Steffon often pastes the digital version of the book into the Braille translator on his BrailleNote device. He says he began using a version of the BrailleNote in highschool and jokes that the device is his wife because he takes it with him everywhere. When he listens to movies or books, Steffon says he reads along with his BrailleNote in digital Braille. He can turn his BrailleNote off and back on and read the text where he left off which is very useful. But according to Steffon, most e-text book files sent directly by publishers include many errors which make them difficult to use. “They are poor quality, they have weird spacing and when they include footnotes and parenthesis, it’s hard to sort through the text and cross reference,” says Steffon.
Steffon notes that in order to read just one story, he must often acquire the needed book far ahead of time and have someone in student support services edit the text which takes hours. “The Bookshare books are better- quality and very easy to navigate with a “find” command that allows you to scroll through it,” says Steffon. “They are there when I need them and I don’t have to depend on anyone. Everyone needs help in this world, but I’m not old or a cripple and I want to be on an even plane with everyone else.”
Steffon said that Bookshare was especially useful in the spring of his sophomore year in college when he needed to purchase texts for his English class. He discovered that he could not afford to purchase printed books in order to get permission to download the accompanying e-text files and audio books were also expensive. Since Bookshare is free to all U.S. students with a qualifying disability, Steffon was able to download the literature texts without cost. “I was on my own for the first time in my life and I was running out of money,” recalls Steffon. “But my Bookshare books are totally free.”
Steffon says he has now completed his required college English literature classes and can now turn his attention back to personal reading which he says is more fun and less pressure. He says he likes to work out and is a die-hard Alabama football fan, but reading is his main form of recreation. Steffon’s recent selections from the Bookshare library includes a book entitled Rash in which the protagonist is a 16-year-old teenager who is blamed when other students break out into a skin rash. The character is sent to a prison in the North Pole where he joins the newly illegal sport of football. “It depicts a future where people are more willing to be safe then free,” explains Steffon. “If you say something bad about someone, you end up on a work farm. Someone else in the book was sent to prison for chopping down an apricot tree.”
Steffon says he also enjoyed reading Ray Bradbury’s classic dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 where books are illegal and firemen burn texts instead of putting out fires. “It gives you an idea where we are headed,” says Steffon. “Every day we are exchanging freedom for security.”
According to Steffon, one of the best features of Bookshare is that new books are added every day. He says he often reviews the collection to see which new books are available and sometimes reads favorite books more than once. “I imagine that I am the people in the book, reading gives you a chance to be something else and be somewhere else,” says Steffon. “After a hard day at school, you hunker down and read and there’s nothing like it.”
Steffon notes that Braille books are still difficult for blind people to acquire and he wants more readers to know about Bookshare. Bookshare has already been helpful to Steffon’s younger brother Devante, a Bookshare member who is now a student at the Alabama School for the Blind. Steffon says his brother is also a big fan of Bookshare and the two of them share books when they meet. Jacksonville State University in Jacksonville, Alabama recently accepted Steffon who will enter the university next fall as a junior. Steffon says he plans to major in public relations. He says he will include the Bookshare videos in his portfolio and has already shared them with other students who have visual impairments. Steffon says he also hopes to become a volunteer Bookshare proofreader in 2011 to help grow the Bookshare collection.
“I really enjoy reading, but after they leave school, a lot of blind people don’t get around to reading much,” says Steffon. “Bookshare is unlimited, anything you want to read you can find it there. I have shown the Bookshare videos to a lot of my friends who go to schools for the blind and they are getting into it.”