Nonprofit tech company Benetech’s Bookshare project is the world’s largest online library of accessible ebooks for people with print disabilities.
In a world dominated by print, images, and videos, imagine not being able to access content vital for your day-to-day functioning: weather updates, homework assignments, timetables…This is reality for an estimated 285 million people worldwide who are visually impaired. Accessible content is even harder to come by if you belong to the 90% of print-impaired individuals who come from low-income settings.
Harnessing technology for the greater good
Enter Benetech. The U.S.-based organisation isn’t your run-of-the-mill tech company. It’s a nonprofit whose mission is to empower communities in need by creating scalable technology solutions. Their work is varied: from providing a safe space for human rights defenders in over 50 countries to document human rights violations, to equipping environmental conservationists to protect ecosystems and species all over the world. One of Benetech’s projects is Bookshare: and it’s transforming how over 400,000 people with disabilities read.
Bookshare is the world’s largest online library of accessible ebooks for people with print disabilities.
A print-disabled person is “a person who cannot effectively read print because of a visual, physical, perceptual, developmental, cognitive, or learning disability.” Through its extensive collection of educational and popular titles, specialized book formats, and reading tools, Bookshare offers individuals who cannot read standard print materials the same ease of access that people without disabilities enjoy.
The Bookshare library now has over 475,000 books and serves more than 400,000 members. The organisation works in 70 countries across the globe, with India having particular focus as it has the largest number of persons with disability in the world. With outreach in all states, they are providing accessible content in English, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Gujarati, and Marathi, with plans to add Kannada to their offering.
Providing children joyful reading material in many languages
Bookshare has been using titles from Pratham Books since 2009 and last year began sourcing more multilingual content for children from StoryWeaver. Since all content on the digital repository of multilingual children’s stories is open-source and available in open formats, Bookshare can take ePubs from the platform and convert them to the DAISY Format.
DAISY (the Digital Accessible Information System) is the emerging world standard for digital talking books for people who are blind or have print disabilities.
This format has been under development for over 10 years, with most of the world’s talking book libraries now employing the standard in some form or the other.
Dr. Homiyar Mobedji, Disability Expert, Program Management [India], Benetech, says, “Daisy is the most accessible format for persons with print disability as a Daisy Book can be in various forms. Bookshare offers its members the opportunity to download content in either Daisy-text only, Daisy with images, audio, or BrF formats (embosser-ready electronic braille files). A reader can either download the book and read it on his own device, such as a laptop, desktop, or Android or iOS device, or use a dedicated Daisy player. Users can also read our content online using our web-based reader.”
“Our strategy is to empower individual organizations so that they can reach out to many more on our behalf. This leads to a multiplier effect, which can be difficult to monitor in a country as vast as India. However, our membership numbers indicate that we are moving in the right direction,” shared Dr. Mobedji.
Bookshare’s outreach work brings them into close proximity with schools, colleges, and institutions working with the print-disabled. They have more than 7,500 members in the country, and approximately 500 new members joining every month.
The nonprofit’s main focus in India is to create textbooks and children’s books as these are both in high demand. The organisation has already shared the syllabus from a number of State and Central Boards.
Inclusive in every way
“For our section on children’s books, we are uploading titles in Indian languages from StoryWeaver,” shared Dr. Mobedji.
Bookshare is working directly with a selection of schools in Pune. There, it has chosen a curated list of Marathi titles from StoryWeaver as part of the All Children Reading Project.
The Project promotes early-grade reading with the help of technology.
“The stories were loved by our children of Grades II, III, and IV, who can now recite almost all the stories by heart. The teachers have observed that as the children loved the stories, they accepted braille reading, which was difficult when the children were only given textbooks to read. Some of the children have improved their braille reading tremendously, which is a major achievement,” Dr. Mobedji recounted.
By openly licensing content and making it accessible, Bookshare wants to take reading to ALL children. It’s a goal worthy of praise and pride.