Monday, May 04, 2015

Silicon Valley Gives to Bookshare

Tomorrow is an exciting day for our Bookshare online library for students with dyslexia or visual impairments.  We have incredibly generous matching grants from two of our dedicated tech entrepreneur supporters, Bernie Newcomb and Lata Krishnan.  Tomorrow, Tuesday May 5, 2015, is Silicon Valley Gives day, where donors from around the world will find their contributions to organizations based here matched by local donors.

We love reading, and we know how important being able to read a book is to educational and employment opportunity.  Each year, we provide more than a million books that are spoken aloud, enlarged or made into braille for students who can't pick up a print book and read it because of a disability.

We've never done a crowdfunding campaign specifically for Bookshare, and tomorrow we'll find out if some of our 350,000 users and their families are able to express their appreciation by helping match these challenge grants. And we need help: our annual federal funding from Bookshare has been flat for seven years while our users have grown by more than a factor of ten.  There are more books to be scanned, and many more people who need accessible books here in the United States and around the world.

So, please give if you can by making a donation now, or through tomorrow, on the Silicon Valley Gives to Bookshare page. The transaction costs of giving online with a credit card are much more than covered by our matching donors. Spread the word to people who care about reading, and about educational opportunity.  We want to do so much more, and with help from donors who share our dreams, we will! 

Friday, April 24, 2015

Skoll World Forum: My Annual Heart-Mind Feast

My favorite conference of the year is the Skoll World Forum in Oxford. That’s still the case even after attending the Forum for eleven straight years as of last week! Why, after all these years, do I love going back?

Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship logoFirst and foremost, it’s the people. This is my posse, the global social entrepreneur community, as well as the people who appreciate and support them. Everybody there understands the issues at the intersection of social good and innovation at scale. That is why conversations at the Forum start where conversations elsewhere end. Thanks to the environment of trust and effectiveness, there are nearly one hundred people on my list of follow-ups from last week!

The programming also works well for me and most of my fellow social entrepreneurs. That’s no accident: since its inception, the Skoll team has continuously improved the Forum. The event starts with two-and-a-half days of the Skoll Convening: a gathering of all of the current and former Skoll Awardees. This year’s Convening was the best one to date, and I’ve been to all of them. The cohort is really changing: a third of the Skoll Awardees’ organizations have gone through or are going through leadership transitions. Interestingly enough, the Skoll Award status tends to stick with the individual, albeit many Awardees are off starting another social enterprise (or two). There were also some successor CEOs in the crowd, along with an explicit track for senior colleagues (like Betsy Beaumon, Benetech’s new President), as the Skoll Foundation increasingly recognizes the importance of strong teams to their grantee organizations. It was also interesting to meet a new group of a dozen young leaders picked from among the Skoll network organizations.

Many conversations about deep and meaningful topics took place during the Convening, in small and large groups. This is the part that really fed my heart. Our peers are grappling with many similar challenges around leading social sector organizations, and there is immense comfort in sharing these worries—and your experiences—with people you trust. I always walk away with new ideas from my fellow social entrepreneurs.

Fellow Skoll Awardee Martin Burt and I gave a joint session on his Poverty Stoplight program (a methodology that allows poor families to assess their level of poverty across several dimensions and to develop a customized plan to overcome it), and on building software applications for collecting data from the people served by social enterprises. Our session was well attended and we received plenty of helpful feedback. One highlight of the Convening for me, though, was meeting the Dalai Lama’s personal physician and spending a couple of totally engaging hours with him. That’s a very “Skoll moment:” you never know whom you’ll end up sitting next to!

The Convening is followed by a two-and-a-half-day conference with a thousand attendees, numerous sessions, and three daily inspirational plenaries. Other than the sessions where I was directly involved as a presenter, I spent almost all of my time in scheduled and impromptu meetings.

Oh, and there are dinners (generally in Harry Potter-esque dining halls) and parties every night. These, in fact, are critical parts of the experience: connecting with old friends, setting up meetings for the next day, and (extensively) talking shop. Exhausting, but totally worthwhile.

Those around-the-clock meetings were the mind food for me: completely inspirational for my work in the coming year. Just about everybody wanted to talk about how technology could play a major role in improving their ability to scale their impact. That includes a great number of terrific social entrepreneurs who have probably avoided engaging with technology for most of their lives. As one of the few geek social entrepreneurs, I’m a rare pipeline to Silicon Valley technology for my friends in the network. By hearing from dozens of CEOs and founders about their tech needs, I’ve been connecting the dots. I connect some groups that have similar needs and that should be talking together. Some organizations I can point to solutions that exist and are worth evaluating. Moreover, from Benetech’s standpoint, I get to spot projects that are candidates for Benetech Labs: needs that could turn into Benetech social enterprise products.

I like the fact that the Forum welcomes promising, up-and-coming social entrepreneurs beyond the limited circle of established social entrepreneurs and the handful of new Skoll Awardees each year. I had the pleasure of meeting Ben Knight of Loomio, an exciting tech innovator from New Zealand who came out of the Occupy Movement to make a web solution for democratic decision-making that’s exploding in use around the world. One of my dreams ten years ago was to see more Benetech-style organizations launch, and meeting Ben was a thrill: seeing someone just a couple of years into that path and already having global impact!

The Skoll World Forum has become the best global conference for social entrepreneurship, and the highlights I just shared are some of the reasons why I keep coming back to it. The Skoll team has pulled off critical mass in attendees, which makes it incredibly efficient for organizations like mine with a global focus. There’s no other place where I can have a hundred useful conversations in one week with people from Europe, Africa, Asia, Latin America, Oceania, and yes, North American and even California. Even though the Forum is heavily oversubscribed, I feel new social entrepreneurs doing great work can still get in and benefit from the peer support. That’s how we build the movement.

I’m already looking forward to next year!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Contemplating Boulder and Social Impact

Social enterprise. Technology. Contemplation.

I just spent several stimulating days in Boulder, Colorado, thanks to an invitation from my longtime friend and social sector leader, Chuck Lief. Chuck is the president of Naropa University, but we first met when he was leading the Greyston Foundation, a pioneering social enterprise known for originally making brownies for Ben ‘n Jerry’s ice cream while employing formerly incarcerated individuals as the primary workforce. Chuck and I were involved with the founding of the Social Enterprise Alliance (SEA) in 2000, the nation’s association for organizations using the tools of business to accomplish social good. Chuck was the second chair of SEA and I succeeded him as the third chair. So, we go way back in our shared commitment to growing the social enterprise movement.

Chuck had been suggesting for quite a while that I come to Boulder both to speak to Naropa students and connect with the vibrant local tech scene. Last week, I had the pleasure of visiting Boulder and seeing the winter beauty of the place right after a big snowfall as well as of connecting with many people excited about social impact.
The iconic Flatirons overlooking Boulder, Colorado

My first stop was Prof. Laura DeLuca’s class on Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship. The majority of Naropa students in the class were working on their own social enterprise concepts. I was able to participate in the Naropa tradition of “bowing in” at the beginning of classes: a short meditation exercise to focus the mind on the people in the room. It was easy to focus on bringing my story to these students and hoping to help inspire them on their way to doing more social good. Naropa University board chair Jerry Colonna opened the class with his transformational story of terrific success as an investor (Flatiron Partners, JP Morgan) that left him spiritually empty inside and how he changed his life dramatically and for the better. My message was about my geek identity, and how important it is for geeks to see their talents focused on helping all of humanity, not just the richest 5%. Colorado University doctoral student Kyle Thompson concluded with a presentation on the Business Model Canvas, a more agile way to plan for a new enterprise than a traditional business plan. On the spot, Kyle had me do the canvas for Benetech’s Bookshare social enterprise: took us less than ten minutes to capture the essence of Bookshare!

Chuck and I talked more about his plans for growing Naropa and its mission of helping students transform themselves and the world. I knew a little about Naropa’s Buddhist roots, but I came away understanding much more about its nondenominational approach and why social entrepreneurship was an important part of its future plans. One very cool thing I learned was that the Unreasonable Institute will be hosted at Naropa for the next couple of years. I really like Unreasonable’s approach to unlocking entrepreneurial potential to overcome our world’s greatest problems, and hope to find the time to participate as a mentor there.

Chuck and Jerry Colonna hosted a reception at Boulder’s Impact Hub (such a cool organization, I am a founding member of the San Francisco Impact Hub) to connect me with the tech community in Boulder. I have half a dozen great connections as a result. There were three different social enterprises developing software applications similar to our Martus software, but in other areas of the social sector. We mainly commiserated about the challenges of the app business model! I’m looking forward to trading notes on that. I had a chance to talk to Seth Levine, co-founder of the Foundry Group, and Ryan Martens, founder and CTO of Rally Software, about the One Percent Initiative (startup companies give one percent of equity or annual profits) and the Entrepreneur's Foundation of Colorado that they are strongly promoting among their companies and the Colorado region. It’s a great model that was pioneered in the Bay Area but now seems to be having even bigger success in Colorado.

Of course, there were far more conversations than I can capture in a short blog post. It was gratifying to learn about new bold ideas and meet with experienced entrepreneurs looking for opportunities to make more social impact as well as young people (including some fellow geeks) with strong drives to make the world a better place!

I’m looking forward to coming back and doing what I can to support Chuck and the Boulder community to do even more to transform the world.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Donor Spotlight: Lavelle Fund for the Blind

What is it like for a nonprofit to have a successful, lasting partnership with a private philanthropic foundation? And what are some of the social benefits and impact that may result from such a relationship?

At Benetech, we’re fortunate to have had long-time support from funders who have been willing to bet on us. One foundation that has been a committed supporter of our work is the Lavelle Fund for the Blind. I’d like to share our experience with Lavelle, where they took a series of calculated risks in grantmaking.

Logo of the Lavelle Fund for the Blind.
The Lavelle Fund exemplifies the tremendous social return that bold philanthropy can create. Embracing measured risk, The Fund has been willing to make early bets on Benetech, and has repeatedly chosen to invest in our prototype projects. These projects ended up becoming successful and found sustainable funding streams, allowing the innovation to go to scale without needing continued funding from Lavelle. That’s what a lot of foundations would love to see happen: in this case, it’s happened multiple times!

The mission of the Lavelle Fund is to support programs that help people with visual impairments, including blindness, lead independent, productive lives. It funds primarily organizations that serve the New York City metropolitan area or New York State. Twelve years ago, the Fund made its first grant to Benetech, in support of the then newly launched Bookshare, our accessible online library for people with disabilities that get in the way of reading print, including visual impairments and dyslexia. This first grant allowed us to pilot a Bookshare outreach project in the New York metro area, with a de facto focus on senior citizens with vision loss. Frankly, it didn’t go as well as we had hoped, and Lavelle worked with us to retarget the grant to focus on students with visual impairments. This revised project included the conversion of books into accessible formats and working with multiple schools.

This pilot paved the way for our work in the education field. It gave us the opportunity to conduct for the first time a sizeable outreach campaign in education, provided us with informative user feedback and case studies, and supported the development of Bookshare’s initial K-12 collection. This experience helped us prove the potential of Bookshare to meet the needs of students with disabilities. Soon afterwards in 2007, we won our first major award from the United States Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), which, in turn, allowed us to build Bookshare into a national asset. Today, Bookshare serves over 330,000 American students with a rapidly growing collection of hundreds of thousands of accessible ebooks. It is Benetech’s largest social enterprise and is making excellent strides towards solving the “accessible book famine” in the United States. Moreover, Bookshare basically breaks even in the United States thanks to contracts to provide the services, from the U.S. government and states like Texas.

The Lavelle Fund also supports programs benefiting the developing world. In this grantmaking area, too, The Fund was key to Bookshare’s global expansion and to our ability to better serve low-income users, in developing and developed countries alike.

We first extended Bookshare services internationally in 2008 with the launch of Bookshare in India. Worth Trust, an Indian social enterprise providing employment to people with disabilities, partnered with Bookshare to provide book-processing services and expand the library. This effort has now resulted in the addition of over 11,000 books to the Bookshare collection and was made possible through the initial support of the Lavelle Fund.

When Bookshare really began to take off, we realized that we weren’t serving many low-income Bookshare members who lacked access to a personal computer or a smartphone. Even in the United States, this was true of probably a quarter of our student users. Of course, in India and other developing countries, the gap is even larger. It was again a grant from the Lavelle Fund (our third) that allowed us to develop the ability to provide accessible MP3 audio versions of our materials and realize the enormous potential impact of mobile reading options for individuals with print disabilities.

A Bookshare member reading a Bookshare book in audio format on an assistive technology device.
DAISY Audio and MP3 formats offer Bookshare members
more choices to read on the go
In this case, we upgraded the Bookshare website to allow direct downloads of accessible MP3 files for a small number of Bookshare ebooks. The idea is that a member could go to a school, library, or other nonprofit agency with an internet connection, and walk out with the books they wanted to read on any MP3 player or MP3-enabled mobile phone (this is true of most of the inexpensive phones being sold). Since we first began offering this option three years ago, Bookshare members have downloaded over 150,000 MP3 files from the collection. This pilot created strong interest in mobile Bookshare among educators and students, and laid the groundwork for eventual integration of audio download capability via Bookshare at large, when we convinced the Department of Education to scale the pilot up to cover all of our books in English and in Spanish.

With this new capability for making audio files available, we have returned to the international field with many more books available to many more people on the device they actually have in their pocket or in their bag. In 2013, with the most recent (and fourth!) grant by the Lavelle Fund and with welcome changes to Indian copyright law in effect, we embarked on a new project to increase service and expand the number of accessible books for people who are blind in India. As part of this project, we are working with our lead Indian partner, the DAISY Forum of India, as well as other Indian disability organizations. We are committed to increasing our impact in India by an order of magnitude. Benetech announced this commitment at the 2013 Annual Meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative. We’re very excited about this project: it allows us to pilot Bookshare at scale in India and show its potential to address the needs of people with disabilities globally.

The Lavelle Fund for the Blind has been a wonderful partner to Benetech. Over and over again, it has allowed us to pilot and eventually scale technology solutions that empower disadvantaged communities. The Fund demonstrates the incredible social impact that private philanthropy can create through smart investing strategies and risk tolerance. We are deeply grateful to the Fund for its continued support and commitment to improving the lives of people with disabilities.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

CEO’s Update: Fall 2014

My personal goal is to channel the aspirations of the technology community to do more social good. More and more of my time is spent around both raising money and raising awareness of how much more could be done with technology to increase social impact. In this update, I’m delighted to be able to share Benetech’s latest efforts to do both. First, I’ll cover our biggest fundraising effort of the year: individual philanthropy is crucial to us; it’s the portion that makes 10X impact possible! Then I’ll share the latest stories on the impact of our tech volunteerism and human rights tech efforts as well our new tech leadership.

Highlights of this Update:
Join Benetech in Making the World Better for All
At Benetech, we touch the lives of hundreds of thousands of individuals in often-difficult situations. From people in Latin America who face severe water scarcity to at-risk human rights defenders and students with disabilities, our users and their families are the ones who best convey the impact of our work.

Bookshare student member Brennan Draves and his mother, Lindsay, posing to the camera.
Brennan Draves and his mother, Lindsay Draves, at school.
Consider third grade student Brennan Draves. Brennan has Retinitis Pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that causes severe vision impairment and blindness. His disability, however, does not stop him from flying through his homework assignments. He reads accessible ebooks from Benetech’s Bookshare library in braille format, and learns as quickly as his peers without disabilities. In fact, his reading skills are above average and he is on track to be an honor roll student. “Bookshare has made my homework easier,” Brennan says. And Brennan’s mom, Lindsay Draves, adds, “Bookshare has made it possible for my son to be excited about learning.”

We want students like Brennan—and disadvantaged people everywhere—to have equal opportunities to make their lives better. We’re thrilled that today’s rapid changes in technology are opening up tremendous new ways to address the problems they face. To do so, we definitely need your help.

That’s why we were excited to participate 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. The Challenge ran for six weeks through December 5th. We competed against other participating organizations, racing against the clock to raise funds and secure matching funding from the Skoll Foundation. We did very well, and with the Skoll Foundation’s matching support, each gift to our campaign more than doubled its impact. As we look forward to 2015, we recognize that much work remains to be done, and we definitely need your continued support.

Are you excited about technology benefiting the world? It’s not too late to pledge your support for our work. To help now, please use the Donate Form on Benetech's website and give whatever you can. We build our tech-for-good products and reach dollar-by-dollar, and therefore every gift makes a difference for the people we serve. Thank you!
We are very excited about our SocialCoding4Good project, one of our Benetech Labs initiatives, which is working to increase the engagement of the technology sector with social good initiatives beyond just the scope of our own programs.

Within a short period, SocialCoding4Good has gone from a Labs pilot project to a growing community driving social impact. SocialCoding4Good brings together individual software professionals as well as corporate social responsibility teams from companies such as Cisco, Google, Hewlett Packard, LinkedIn, and VMware to volunteer their technical skills to nonprofit partners that develop and maintain free and open source software addressing critical social problems. SocialCoding4Good is a force multiplier: the nonprofit organizations we work with deliver the social impact; SocialCoding4Good makes them stronger.

For example, this summer, SocialCoding4Good organized “code sprints” at Google and LinkedIn during the companies’ volunteer service events, GoogleServe and LinkedIn for Good InDay. There it brought teams of Google and LinkedIn employees to contribute code fixes and key feature enhancements to the open source mobile tools of our nonprofit project partner Mifos, whose mission is to enable financial institutions to become modern and digitally connected providers of financial services to the world’s 2.5 billion poor and unbanked. Mifos can immediately deploy these new mobile features of its financial inclusion platform, which delivers world-class microcredit services that help open up new opportunities for the poor and their families.

To date, more than one thousand software professionals have signed up to lend their time and skills to SocialCoding4Good’s nonprofit project partners, and we are thrilled to support this growing contributor community with new leadership.

New Tech Leadership
Portrait of Benetech VP of Engineering, Mark Roberts
Benetech VP of Engineering, Mark Roberts
Since my last CEO’s Letter, we have also welcomed aboard a new Vice President of Engineering: Mark Roberts, former head of TiVo Engineering and Operations. Mark oversees the development, testing, and deployment of new technology across all of Benetech’s program areas, including Benetech Labs and SocialCoding4Good.

Portrait of SocialCoding4Good Developer Community Manager, Emma Irwin
Developer Community Manager, Emma Irwin
We are also delighted to have aboard Developer Community Manager Emma Irwin, who guides the SocialCoding4Good volunteers as they join and contribute to the growth and impact of our nonprofit software partners’ open source efforts. Under Mark and Emma’s leadership, SocialCoding4Good recently launched a new blog and forums, enabling its volunteers and nonprofit project partners to share their experiences and the community to better support our many new contributors.  

Human Rights
Our Human Rights Program continues to focus on helping activists and journalists securely document the stories of human rights abuses worldwide. Revelations about government interception of these confidential stories has caused us to redouble our efforts to lower the barrier to the use of strong, secure crypto software like Martus. Martus is our free, open source, secure information collection and management tool. Martus Desktop 4.5 and Mobile Martus 1.2 feature myriad updates, with a focus on improved usability. For example, Martus can now be configured in less than 10 minutes by anyone with basic digital literacy skills. These new releases take big steps forward towards helping communities interested in secure collection of crucially important stories of human suffering, whether on PCs, Macs, or Android smartphones out in the field. And we have even more improvements in our development pipeline.

As toolmakers, our ultimate impact is measured by what our users create with our products. Case in point is our team’s work with local LGBTI groups in Sub-Saharan Africa to help them establish independent human rights documentation initiatives. The capacity building assistance we have extended to our partners over the past three years towards organized data collection of human rights violations is truly bearing fruit. The documentation projects of our partners in Uganda, Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe have yielded so far six high-quality publications or reports about violations against LGBTI individuals in their communities. These are major milestones in our collective effort to build a culture of systematic, evidence-based documentation and advocacy work, and in our journey to make the defenders of human rights stronger in their fight against injustice and abuse.  

Thanks to the commitment of our supporters, partners, collaborators, volunteers, and staff, Benetech is increasing both the scale and scope of our work. We are determined to do far more for the millions of people around the world who most need the benefits of technology and are often the least able to afford them! We want to address pressing social challenges by prototyping new tools in areas outside our established programs as well as better serving and empowering our current user communities. Lastly, we want to go beyond what we can do on our own by igniting the larger tech community to engage in deploying technology for good. As a lifelong geek, I can’t imagine a more thrilling time to make this happen. I hope you join us!

Jim Fruchterman
Founder and CEO, Benetech

Monday, December 01, 2014

Ethics and Responsibility in Technology-for-Good: A Human-Centered Approach

Our networked world has advanced to a point where information technology is touching all aspects of society. The cost of prototyping and deploying new technology tools is now extremely low and data has the potential to accelerate social progress in areas ranging from poverty to human rights, education, health, and the environment. However, we have yet to come to grips with what is ethical and what the laws should be in relation to rapidly changing technologies.

Logo of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' (IEEE) Society on Social Implications of Technology (SSIT).
This post originally appeared on the blog of the
Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' (IEEE)
Society on Social Implications of Technology (SSIT).
At Benetech, we regularly grapple with questions related to this issue. For instance, we ask, how can we harness the power of technology for positive social impact; and how can we mitigate the risks to privacy and civil rights posed by the age of big data? As engineers who want to do the right thing, we follow four general guidelines: first, when it comes to data and technology in the social sector, apply a human-centered approach; second, treat the people you want to help with respect; third, when working to protect vulnerable communities, follow the “do no harm” maxim; and finally, bridge communities and establish partnerships-for-good. Let me explain further. 
  • Context matters
Building technology solutions for the social sector isn’t purely an armchair exercise, based on the thrill of empowering people in principle. We first understand those we aspire to help and the real-world conditions in which they live and operate. We must also put our technology innovations into the users’ hands, see what actually works, and adapt as necessary. This iterative method helps us focus on building products that are responsive to real needs
  • Treat users as customers, not recipients of charity
People in challenging situations must invest their time and limited resources to improve their lives. Our role as technologists is to provide the tools that empower them to do so. Treating them as customers, rather than objects of charity, promotes their sense of ownership and self-agency as they use the tools that we develop to achieve their own goals.
  • When it comes to data, rights, and privacy, first do no harm
Vulnerable groups served by social justice organizations-such as victims of human rights abuse, refugees, LGBT individuals, or survivors of gender-based violence-deserve the same kind of respect for their sensitive information as citizens of wealthy countries expect for theirs. Having long supported human rights activists, we know the importance of confidentiality when working with victims and witnesses. For instance, Benetech’s Human Rights Program is focused on helping human rights practitioners, activists, and journalists uphold their commitments to protect and do no harm to the communities they serve. Our strong cryptography technology, Martus—a free, open source, secure information management tool-makes it easier for groups working with vulnerable populations keep the sensitive information they collect confidential.
  • Community and partnership are paramount
Technology only goes so far in creating social progress, but a galvanized community of partners and supporters who work together toward a greater good can generate lasting impact. Case in point: our accessible online library, Bookshare. Bookshare is the result of joint efforts of our partners in the education, technology, publishing, student, parent, and volunteer communities. Our technical tools by themselves don’t make change: it is these communities using our tools that create social good. As toolmakers, our ultimate impact is measured by what other people build with our tools.

In a world where the benefits of technology are still often limited to reaching the richest 1% or 5% of society, we are trilled to see a growing movement of engineers motivated to help humanity. As technologists with a focus on creating social good, we need to keep in mind principles of safety and ethics. While the context and the users may vary in each case, the principles of human-centered design and treating others as we would like to be treated remain the same. If we can keep these principles in mind, we can turn good ideas into proven solutions with lasting impact.

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.

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