Monday, December 22, 2008

Tracy Justesen visits Benetech

Just before the holidays, we had a great visit from Tracy R. Justesen, Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services. Tracy's brief at the U.S. Department of Education includes overseeing OSEP, the people who are funding our Bookshare for Education project to serve every student with a print disability in the United States.
Bookshare collection and membership team crowded around Asst Secretary of Education Tracy Justesen, seated on a blue scooterTracy's visit really gave our team a chance to shine. John Glass demonstrated the new version of Victor Reader Soft from HumanWare, one of our key access technology partners. John Crossman demonstrated the completely new version of the Bookshare on-line library, which is currently in the first round of beta tests. Tracy Justesen and Jim Fruchterman getting computer software demo from Paddy SullivanPaddy Sullivan, part of our membership team, volunteered to demonstrate the new version of Don Johnston's Read:OutLoud software, which will be available once we launch the new site.

Carrie Karnos waving book in front of chopper, with Margaret Romer and Tracy Justesen watchingCarrie Karnos gave the demonstration to Tracy and Margaret Romer (also from Department of Ed) of the ever-popular book mangler, I mean, book chopper. I'm always amazed how she can chop and scan an entire book in under five minutes. [Shout-out to Ann Harrison for taking the photos!]

Tracy also visited with many of the other Bookshare team members. He made a special point of wanting to meet with our Chief Scientist Patrick Ball (also head of our Human Rights Program). He had spotted the Frontline PBS special on our work in Guatemala, which had led to him deciding he wanted to visit us. Patrick was able to explain our human rights work articulately and passionately as always!
Tracy Justsen and Jim FruchtermanIf you had told me two years ago that we'd be hosting someone from Washington at Benetech, I would have been surprised. But, it's clear that we have to work at being better known to fully accomplish our social mission goals. Our team does a great job at communicating the excitement and dedication they bring to Benetech's work: I'm sure we'll be doing much more of this in the future! It was great to start with someone like Tracy who has been familiar with and very supportive of work, and clearly is committed to increasing opportunity for students with disabilities. Tracy encouraged us to extend the same invitation to the next Assistant Secretary from the new administration.

My discussions with Hill staff and leaders from Washington encourage me to believe that equal access to education is a bi-partisan issue. Even in tough financial times like these, solutions like ours that are highly cost-effective seem likely to attract continued and even expanded support, as long as we can demonstrate our cost-effectiveness with real numbers. I'm looking forward to doing more of that, not only advocating for Benetech's projects like Bookshare, but for the entire social enterprise movement (wearing my hat as the chair of the Social Enterprise Alliance)!