Teachers are being forced to rip the spines off books and scan pages one by one, but electronic text could easily be converted
Olympic rowing champion Sir Steve Redgrave has called on the Government to provide an electronic library of textbooks and other educational materials for children with special needs.
The 44-year-old winner of five Olympic gold medals, is dyslexic, as are two of his three children, Sophie, 12, and Zak, 8.
He said that the US government began a programme last month through which publishers supply their educational materials in electronic form to the National Instructional Materials Access Centre, which converts them into alternative formats and supplies then to schools.
An equivalent centre was needed in Britain, he said, to help, among others, the 230,000 children in England with statements identifying special educational needs.
Last week, at the Bett educational technology show, Sir Steve fronted the launch of Dolphin Computer Access software that can convert documents such as textbooks into formats such as braille, large-print and audio books.
"For me, letters get jumbled up," he told The TES. "My eldest went to a Montessori school where they used to have big sandpapered letters so you could rub your hand over and get a feel for them.
"I was holding one up and my daughter said, 'I don't know what it is.' I said, 'Come on, you know this, it's an A.' My wife wandered past and said, 'Steve, you're holding it upside down.'"
In his sporting career, Sir Steve found it difficult dealing with important documents such as sponsorship or endorsement contracts: "If you misunderstand one word, it can turn the whole meaning upside down. Software that converts documents into the spoken word is fantastic, and you can see the benefits for a student."
He said that teachers were being forced to rip the spines off textbooks and scan pages one by one. Whereas, if publishers supplied the original electronic text and images to a national electronic library, it could easily be converted into accessible formats.
The Educational Publishers' Council said it was working with the Government to assess the feasibility of such a library.
"You can't just take the electronic files from the publisher - it has to be done in a managed way," said Graham Taylor, the council's director.
"There are copyright and supply chain matters to be thought through if accessible editions are to be made available commercially."
AltFormat, which with the support of blind, dyslexic and other disabled groups is campaigning for resources such as this, said only 12 per cent of maths and 8 per cent of science GCSE textbooks are available in accessible formats in England.
Sir Steve and his wife sent their children to private schools in Buckinghamshire. He said the independent sector, with its smaller class sizes, was better able to cater to special needs.
He added that Ruth Kelly, the former education secretary, had called attention to the crisis in the state sector with her contentious decision to send her dyslexic son to a private school.
"As a parent with a dyslexic child, you want the best for them and you do whatever you can," he said. "If private education is what it takes, so be it.
"Ruth Kelly's decision highlights the problem. If someone in her position is going down that path, it shows there is a big problem in state schools."