Reflections on an internship with Bookshare.org in Chennai, India
Made possible through support from the Amherst College Center for Community Engagement
Anna Reid, religion major, class of 2010
Anna Reid with employees of Worth Trust, a South Indian organization that provides vocational training and employment for people with disabilities.
Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that all people deserve "the right to seek, receive and impart information." Today, millions of people are denied this basic human right because they are not literate. A related, but slightly different and less recognized issue, is the fact that people with disabilities such as blindness often have limited access to printed materials, even if they are well-educated. According to a 2002 WHO estimate, there are 162 million visually impaired people in the world. Over 90% of these people live in third world countries, where books and newspapers in Braille or other alternative formats are very difficult to acquire. Even in the United States, access to printed materials can be a significant challenge for people who are visually impaired or have other disabilities that prevent them from reading standard print.
This summer I interned with an organization called Benetech, a U.S.-based non-profit that addresses unmet social needs through innovative technology solutions. One of the programs developed by Benetech is a digital library called Bookshare.org. Bookshare.org allows people with qualifying disabilities to share and access thousands of books in digital formats that can then be downloaded and read using text-to-speech computer software or Braille devises. This program is making it significantly easier for the print disabled to gain quick, cheap, and independent access to the information that is necessary for full participation in today’s society.
Bookshare.org has been very popular in the United States, and is now working to make its service available in other countries as well. Expanding to meet global need brings a number of new challenges, including collection development for new audiences, gaining author and publisher permissions for worldwide distribution of materials, and forming partnerships with organizations that can spread the word about Bookshare and manage membership and customer support outside of the U.S. As an intern, I was working for Bookshare in Chennai, India, as their "on-the-ground" person, doing outreach and helping to establish a structure that will support their service there.
An example of a Hindi phrase translated into a phonetic Braille code
My internship consisted of two basic components. The first was to work, through an organization called Worth Trust, with a group of disabled employees that Bookshare has hired to scan and prepare books for the India collection. I collaborated with people at Worth Trust to develop techniques that will improve the efficiency and quality of their work. I also served as a mediator and problem-solver, mainly by helping to facilitate communication between the employees, their supervisor, and the U.S. Bookshare managers.
The second part of my internship was outreach. I visited schools, group homes, and organizations for the blind and disabled in and around Chennai in order to share information about Bookshare.org and to discuss how Bookshare might be refined to better serve people with disabilities in India.
The opportunity to work with many different organizations as a Bookshare.org representative gave me a wonderful glimpse into the Indian disability services system. The work was often slow, and communication was sometimes difficult. Everything I learned about disability in India, however, about the incredible challenges of social discrimination and limited resources as well as the inspiring work being done by individuals and organizations there, strengthened my interest in this field. There is enormous potential for finding cross-cultural solutions to issues of disability and print access. I returned to Amherst excited and full of questions. I am now pursuing these questions through a study of disability issues in the United States and India.
I am extremely grateful to have had this internship opportunity, and would encourage anyone who is interested to consider helping improve "print access for all" by volunteering with Bookshare.org.