Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Accessible eBooks for Equal Opportunity

Kevin Leong was in kindergarten when he experienced an organic brain injury that forced him to relearn everything from walking to using the bathroom. For several years, he struggled in school because his vision was blurry and reading normal size print was grueling. He could no longer keep up with his peers in the classroom.

In the United States, there are all too many students like Kevin, who are denied equal opportunity to engage in the same curriculum as their peers without disabilities. One of their main challenges is that they do not have adequate access to educational materials that are necessary to learn and succeed in school.

In 2004, the United States passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, requiring schools to provide special education services to eligible students. However, despite such efforts to implement programmes that level the educational playing field, a profound achievement gap persists between expected and actual performance of students with disabilities. For instance, about 40 per cent more eighth-grade students with disabilities are reading below the basic achievement level compared with peers without disabilities.

A significant factor in this gap has traditionally been a lack of complete and timely access to educational materials in alternate formats (like Braille, audio or magnified text) that suit readers with disabilities who cannot use standard print – such as those who are blind, cannot physically turn the pages of a book, or have learning disabilities like dyslexia. Although legal and regulatory requirements stipulate that schools must provide accessible ‘equivalent’ resources for students with disabilities, in practice the majority of these students do not have equal access to textbooks and other instructional materials that make up the primary resources of the general curriculum.

Bookshare student member Kevin Leong sitting outdoors, reading on an iPad.
Accessible ebooks and Bookshare have helped sixth grader
Kevin Leong overcome his reading challenges.
The good news is that major changes in technology are reforming education. In particular, electronic books (or e-books) offer the possibility of dramatically improving access for students with disabilities – and for disadvantaged children everywhere. This is because e-books (unlike traditional print) can easily be rendered in many different ways and presented in the format that best suits one’s needs. E-books, therefore, make access to information an affordable reality, as more and more people, including students, have a device in their pocket capable of operating as an accessible e-reader: from inexpensive mobile phones and MP3 players to Braille note-takers that can store thousands of e-books in digital Braille. It is our collective responsibility to continue unlocking the potential of the e-book to bring equal access to knowledge and learning for all.

Consider how the accessible online library Bookshare – an initiative of Benetech, a Silicon Valley non-profit that builds technology solutions addressing social problems – is transforming the lives of American students with print disabilities.

Thanks to e-book technology, Bookshare today serves over 300,000 students with a collection of more than 300,000 accessible books – the world’s largest library of its kind. When students with disabilities need books for school or simply want to read the same books as their peers without disabilities, they are likely to find that e-book in Bookshare and able to download it in the format of their choice to use at school, at home or elsewhere. Moreover, these accessible books are available for free, since the United States Government funds the Bookshare library to meet requirements in national disability rights and education laws.

For American students with disabilities – including Kevin, who is an active and enthusiastic Bookshare member – the availability of accessible books means staying on top of their schoolwork, and that leads to increased self-esteem.

The Bookshare library is made possible by a copyright exception: Section 121 of the United States Copyright Act, also known as the Chafee Amendment. This exception allows authorized non-profit entities like Benetech to create accessible versions of copyrighted books without the need to request permission from publishers (or pay a royalty), and then to distribute these versions exclusively to people with qualifying disabilities who cannot use regular books. Roughly 1–2 per cent of students in the United States meet these requirements. Students outside the United States are not covered by this national copyright exception, because every country has its own copyright law.

Yet, accessible e-books could be helping millions more students in the United States and worldwide. What can be done today to build this accessible tomorrow?

First, it is critical to keep engaging in legal advocacy for ratification of two landmark United Nations disability treaties. The first is the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)—a vital framework for creating legislation and policies embracing the rights and dignity of all people with disabilities. The other is the recently adopted Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired, or Otherwise Print Disabled – an international copyright treaty that would make a copyright exception for people with disabilities a global norm and allow sharing of accessible books across national borders.

In addition, it is essential to ensure that all newly created digital content is made accessible from the outset. All e-books should have an audio capacity, using whatever smartphone or music playing device a person has in their pocket. Good design can and should be accessible design. Instead of one-size-fits-all, forcing all students and educators to work within the limitations of a single approach, it will then be possible to adapt content and technology to meet the learning needs of each student. With this universal design approach, e-books that meet the needs of students with disabilities simply work better for everyone.

This is a critical and hopeful moment, as major shifts in the publishing and technology industries will make it possible to realize a vision of equal opportunity and quality education for all the world’s children.

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This essay originally appeared in UNICEF's The State of the World's Children 2015.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Gift of Reading, a Circle of Life

“Frank” (who anonymously shared his story with us) has always been an avid reader, but the progression of his neuromuscular disease to his arms made reading difficult. Eventually he had to ask others to turn pages for him. It became a burden to his family and caregivers to constantly drop what they were doing to turn a page, so he began seeking out ebooks. Few were available, and he had trouble with the ones that were: they’d often be in a format that didn’t work well with his voice recognition software.

This reality changed when Frank found out about Benetech’s Bookshare accessible digital library for people with print disabilities. “Suddenly I had thousands upon thousands of books available to me,” he says, “at a price I could afford, in a format I could read independently. And the best part? I could request books not already in the collection, and sometimes my wish would be granted. I began a reading binge. Many of the books were ones I already had on my shelves, gathering dust because I couldn’t pick them up.”

A pile of unbound books on a desk, adjacent to a scanner, with a chopped book being scanned.Frank’s story exemplifies the life-changing power of access to information and reading. It also demonstrates how each ebook that is added to the Bookshare collection is a brick in our members’ foundation of independence and inclusion. That’s why a group of Benetech supporters recently came together to give the gift of reading in honor of our long-time board member Jim Kleckner. Jim recently lost his father, retired ophthalmologist James Franklin Kleckner.

We decided to create the James Franklin In Memoriam collection, with a focus on science and technology books written for the lay audience. First we identified the titles we wanted to add—all requested by Bookshare non-student members, including some of the best science books of 2013 as reported by NPR’s Science Friday show. Then, with help from our Director of Content Acquisition Robin Seaman, we were grateful to receive nearly half of the books on our initial list directly from some of our publisher partners:
We could therefore use the donated funds to scan a dozen more books, so they can be converted into accessible formats:
It was a rewarding project that took us to many wonderful recommendation sources. I’d like to extend thanks to Jim Kleckner for everything he has done for Benetech over the years; to our generous donors, who have made this collection in honor of Jim’s late father possible; and to Carol James, our Digital Collection Development Manager, and the entire Collection Development team for their great work ensuring the donated books are processed and now creating more of the “read now” experience for our Bookshare members. They are the one who understand best what it means to have any one of these books available to them on the library’s virtual shelves, anytime, anywhere.

Today the majority of Bookshare’s ebooks come straight in the form of digital files from our socially minded publisher partners, but each year we expand the library by scanning and proofreading thousands of titles not made digitally available to us, as well as books of personal interest requested by our members. Without this service, Bookshare would not be the resource it is today. To continue this work, we depend on the support of generous donors.

A child holding a marker and writing on a whiteboard, set as background. On the front, the words "Today you can make a difference!" appear (the word "you" in bold), with the Skoll Foundation's logo and the URL crowdrise.com/skoll.With a gift of just $50, we can add a new ebook to the Bookshare collection, making that book available to hundreds of thousands of Bookshare members with disabilities. As a nonprofit, Benetech builds the impact of our programs and initiatives dollar-by-dollar, which is why a gift of any amount will make a difference towards ensuring that people with print disabilities have the books they need for their education, employment, and inclusion in society.

You can now give the gift of reading by joining Benetech’s fundraiser campaign as part of the Skoll Foundation’s second annual Skoll Social Entrepreneurs Challenge—a fundraising campaign committed to strengthening the capacity of organizations like ours to accelerate impact on some of the most critical issues of our time.

To help now, please visit Benetech’s Challenge campaign and give whatever you can. With the Skoll Foundation’s support, your gift will have far more impact on our users around the world.

Thanks so much for your help!

This post originally appeared on the Benetech Blog.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Welcome, Mark Roberts!

After an intensive search period, I’m delighted to share that Benetech recently appointed seasoned executive Mark Roberts as our Vice President of Engineering. Mark is former Senior Vice President of Engineering, Consumer Products, and Operations at TiVo Inc. He’s leading the development, testing, and deployment of Benetech’s tools and services across all its program areas.

Headshot of Benetech VP of Engineering, Mark Roberts.
We’re thrilled to have Mark join us in this leadership role. With his proven execution in scaling business systems and infrastructures that shaped the growth of award-winning service products for multiple high profile Silicon Valley technology companies, he has the perfect pedigree to spearhead engineering at Benetech as we continue to innovate in the technology-for-good space.

Until 2011, Mark spent twelve years growing and developing TiVo. Under his leadership, TiVo’s engineering team received many awards for technical innovation, including an Emmy and several CES Best of Show, and the company was in the top 1% of fastest growing stocks on NASDAQ over a five-year period. Most recently, he served two roles at Next Issue Media, a magazine service platform founded by five global publishers (Rogers, Condé Nast, Hearst, Meredith, and Time Inc.) that designs, develops, markets, and delivers interactive magazine content to consumers through the digital device of their choice. As Vice President of Service Operations and CMS Web Development and General Manager of the Canadian MSO (Management Services Organization) partner, Mark saw the company through rapid subscription growth.

You can learn more about Mark and what led him to Benetech from his bio on the Benetech site.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Join Benetech in the Skoll Foundation’s 2014 Social Entrepreneurs Challenge!

Zach Bryant loves reading non-fiction. This wasn’t always the case, though. Zach has Cerebral Palsy, which causes movement and coordination problems, and which keeps him from speaking and walking. To communicate his thoughts, he uses an alternative augmentative communication device. Tasks like turning a printed page are difficult for him, which makes reading standard print discouraging. According to his mom, this experience is common to children with Cerebral Palsy. “They get frustrated and don’t want to read,” she says, “but access to digital books and reading technologies changed all that for Zach.”

Bookshare member Zach Bryant, wearing college graduation cap and gown, seen sitting in a wheelchair.
Zach Bryant
The change happened when Zach was in high school and his Assistive Technology teacher introduced him to Benetech’s Bookshare library. With Bookshare’s accessible ebooks and reading tools, Zach made a successful transition to college. When our team last caught up with him, he was a busy student at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, rejoicing in his ability to read independently and reach his full potential. “Without Bookshare, my academic life would have been much harder for me and my caregivers,” he said. “It’s amazing that I can find most books I want in the Bookshare collection, even post-secondary textbooks, and no one has to scan them for me. I don’t wait for my books for new classes; I search the library and find them myself.”

Zach’s encounter with accessible ebooks is but one example of how Benetech empowers people who often face difficult challenges and whose needs are neglected. Our software tools change the ways in which individuals with disabilities can effectively read; enable frontline human rights defenders to safely document abuse; and support environmental practitioners in their efforts to protect species and ecosystems.

Our work is made possible thanks to the generosity of our supporters. To continue to provide our services, and to explore new ways in which targeted technological applications could address unmet needs of disadvantaged communities, we definitely need your help.

Please join us in the Skoll Foundation’s second annual Skoll Social Entrepreneurs Challenge—a fundraising campaign committed to strengthening the capacity of organizations like ours to accelerate impact on some of the most critical issues of our time.

Hosted on the Crowdrise platform, the Challenge launched today, October 27, and runs through December 5th. We are competing against other participating organizations—and racing against the clock—to raise funds and secure matching funding from the Skoll Foundation. We build our tech-for-good products and reach dollar-by-dollar, and therefore every gift makes a difference for the people we serve. Now, with the Skoll Foundation’s matching support, your gift will have far more impact!

Logo of the Skoll Foundation's Social Entrepreneurs Challenge.
To help now, please visit Benetech’s Challenge campaign and give whatever you can. Here are some examples of what we can accomplish with your contribution:
Join us, and together we can realize the potential of technology to make the world a better place for everyone. Thank you for your support!

This post also appeared on the Benetech blog.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Team-Up for Textbooks: Volunteer to Help Students with Disabilities

The new school year is in full swing, yet across the U.S., all too many students with print disabilities might not have the textbooks they need for class. To meet that need, the Benetech Volunteer Program is piloting a new initiative—and we’re inviting you to join us!

When a Bookshare student member with a print disability needs a book for school that is not yet in the Bookshare collection, the member submits a request and Bookshare creates an accessible digital version of that book. However, students often don’t know what books they need until the first days of school—a hectic time when Bookshare receives thousands of book requests. During this time, the process of making a textbook accessible can take from 8-12 weeks, with proofreading being the most time-intensive and costly component. Meanwhile, students with print disabilities risk falling behind in school as they wait for the books they need.

Volunteers can now help fulfill students’ book requests faster during periods of peak demand by joining Benetech’s newest volunteer initiative: Team-Up for Textbooks.

Volunteers seated in a conference room at Benetech's offices during a Team-Up for Textbooks kickoff event.
Our wonderful volunteers kicking off the Team-Up for Textbooks initiative
Here’s the idea: through targeted outreach to parents, schools, and community partners, our staff members are recruiting volunteer teams to proofread student requested textbooks. Together, we can not only speed up the delivery of needed textbooks, but also build awareness to strengthen the web of support for students with disabilities. Each volunteer effort makes a difference for a student with a disability today while also creating a lasting resource that will support students for years to come!

To learn more and get involved, please submit the Team-Up for Textbooks volunteer form or contact our staff via email: volunteer [at] Bookshare.org. Thank you for your support!

Friday, September 12, 2014

Advancing Reading Equality with Bookshare’s Exponential Growth

At Benetech, we always ask ourselves how our existing successful programs can reach more people who need our services and how we can apply technology in new ways to enrich and improve more lives. I’m thrilled to share with you some of the recent amazing impact of Bookshare, a Benetech Global Literacy initiative and the largest accessible online library of copyrighted content for people with print disabilities.

Logo of Bookshare, a Benetech Global Literacy Initiative.
Recently Bookshare has reached two major milestones in its efforts to bring reading equality to disadvantaged populations around the world. First, Bookshare’s collection has surpassed a quarter of a million titles and, in fact, is growing so rapidly that at the time of writing this post it is almost at 300,000 titles! Thousands of ebooks are pouring into the collection each month thanks to the dedication of our volunteers around the world and partnerships with more than 500 socially responsible publishers who donate their digital files. Bookshare titles range from vocational to research to teacher-recommended reading. Popular titles are available from publishers like Random House, Penguin, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, Wiley, and others, as well as more than 14,000 textbooks.

Second, Bookshare now serves well over 300,000 members with qualified print disabilities. The majority of our members are U.S. students with visual impairments, physical disabilities, and severe learning disabilities like dyslexia, but we also serve international members in nearly 50 countries and are working to extend Bookshare’s reach to veterans who need access to books and information. Bookshare also provides free reading technologies and apps for members to read the books they want in a variety of formats, including DAISY Text, DAISY Audio, Braille Ready Format, and MP3, on the device of their choice.

These milestones represent a giant leap forward in the number of students and individuals we serve. With the collection’s expanding daily, we’re well on our way to ensuring that our users have equal access to the books they need for education, employment, and social inclusion.

Many thanks to all our financial and programmatic partners, collaborators and supporters, volunteers, and, of course, to Betsy Beaumon, General Manager and Vice President of the Benetech Global Literacy Program, and the entire Global Literacy team!

Monday, September 08, 2014

Open Source and the Promise of Sustainable Nutrition Security

Recently I had the opportunity to get introduced to Gerald Nelson, senior climate change researcher and Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Jerry and I had a great conversation about open sourcing of agricultural scientific models, such as those used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in their climate change reports.

An expert on agricultural economics and spatial analysis, Jerry most recently served as a Senior Research Fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, DC, where he led major projects on food security and climate change issues. He was also the principal author of a recent report you may have heard of: “Advancing Global Food Security in the Face of a Changing Climate,” which was released by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in May 2014, calling on the United States government to integrate climate change adaptation into its global food security strategy.

Jerry is involved in collective efforts to advance methods for improving data and models that inform government and private industry decision makers about the role of food systems in achieving “sustainable nutrition security”—our ability to meet growing demand for safe, affordable, and nutritious food in a sustainable manner. Such efforts are necessary to address global nutritional needs in a world facing the challenges of climate change.

Logo of the Center for Integrated Modeling of Sustainable Agriculture and Nutrition Security (CIMSANS).
More specifically, Jerry is part of a working group focused on these issues at the Center for Integrated Modeling of Sustainable Agriculture and Nutrition Security (CIMSANS), a division of the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) Research Foundation, which works to advance open data and modeling methodologies required to produce comprehensive and credible assessments of how climate change and resource scarcity will impact sustainable nutrition security. When we met, he was therefore especially interested in hearing about Benetech’s perspective on issues related to converting software to open source.

I was happy to offer Jerry some advice on that front and to discover that Benetech may be able to help with his efforts through our SocialCoding4Good initiative, which bridges the open source software, corporate tech, and nonprofit communities for social change. It would be exciting to explore the opportunity to bring SocialCoding4Good’s partners from corporate social responsibility (CSR) teams to lend their skills to improving food security and sustainability models. As it turns out, these models were originally developed decades ago and many are written in Fortran! Converting these models into modern programming languages would make them far more usable and accessible, which, in turn, would tremendously help the scientific community tackle climate change threats.

This week, on September 10-12 at Purdue University, CIMSANS will be co-hosting a workshop and summit focused on improving food systems data and models. I hope the modeling community comes away with a framework for open sourcing the integrated models used to produce sustainable nutrition security assessments. The Benetech team is looking forward to supporting the collective efforts advancing this goal!