Wednesday, March 18, 2009

New Orleans here I come! The Social Enterprise Summit 2009

I'm getting ready to head to the Social Enterprise Summit 2009 next month in New Orleans. I'm especially excited about the significant focus on public policy and advocacy for social entrepreneurship. We were lucky to have the support of the Surdna Foundation for a policy-specific conference track.

Social Enterprise Summit Tenth Anniversary New Orleans April 15-17, 2009
Experienced practitioners tend to engage at levels above their specific organization. For me, it's about advancing the movement. It's crystal clear to me that the creativity of social enterprisers is essential to bringing us out of this current economic and social hole we're in.

With President Obama expected to launch a new White House Office of Social Innovation, this seems like an opportune moment to get together with leaders from the social enterprise movement to help influence the national and international agenda!

If this gets you interested, I hope to see you in New Orleans!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Hachette Book Group Partners with Bookshare

Bookshare looks for publishers to partner with us to make books more available to people with disabilities. It's very exciting that we can announce that one of the largest book groups in the United States has just made the commitment: Hachette Book Group Partners with Bookshare To Make Thousands of Books Available to People with Print Disabilities.

Hachette Book Group publishes under quite a number of famous imprints, such as Little Brown and Company and Grand Central. According to the company, they had a record 107 books on the New York Times bestseller list in 2008, with 35 of them ranked #1. By gaining access to these books directly from Hachette, we don't have to go through our typical time-consuming process of chopping, scanning and proofreading the books. They will be sending the books to us in high quality XML formats that we can turn into DAISY and Braille digital files. We're really excited about the social responsibility that Hachette has demonstrated through making this commitment!

Part of our commitment to Hachette is to ensure that people with print disabilities get the Hachette books they need through Bookshare. The Bookshare infrastructure is set up to make it easy to provide these specialized accessible formats. We're looking forward to making other, similar partnerships with publishers to address the needs of people who simply can't use the traditional print book.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Notes from The Inauguration

A Guest Beneblog by Ann Harrison (Benetech Communications Director)
Ann in coat, purple hat, giving thumbs up sign and with flag
I watched a person in a wheelchair the other day navigate a tricky curb cut while crossing the street. The young man moved along skillfully without the need for assistance, but the scene brought back memories of a day in January when I accompanied a friend in a wheelchair to inauguration of President Barack Obama. As Benetech’s Communications Director, I support the team that maintains Benetech’s Bookshare library for readers with print disabilities. But our adventure at the inauguration gave me an even greater appreciation for the challenges that people with disabilities encounter and the support that exists to meet these needs.

Ignoring recommendations by organizers that disabled people not venture into the dense crowds and frigid weather expected on inauguration day, my friend Steph summoned me and three other girlfriends to Washington D.C. to make sure that she could attend the event. We knew it would be a long day of walking and rolling to get Steph from her apartment in D.C.’s Adams Morgan neighborhood to the National Mall to watch Barack Obama become the 44th president of the United States, but she was determined to witness history.

So early that cold morning, we wrapped Steph in a blanket, bundled her into her wheelchair, and set off on an epic 12-hour journey through the densely packed streets. Taking turns pushing Steph’s wheelchair, we navigated past tall curbs and rough pavement, over frosty lawns, through security checkpoints, and around a deafening fleet of police vehicles. In some places, the crowd was so overwhelming that we held hands in front of Steph’s wheelchair and pleaded with those around us for just enough space, please, to roll forward safely without being pushed over.

"Wheels coming through!" we shouted and almost without exception, every single person turned, smiled and made way for us. By the time we arrived at the hilltop at the base of the Washington Monument, it was clear that the gathering itself, not the official proceedings, was the main event. Being present to watch the first African-American become president of the United States transformed all of us and summoned the better angels of our nature. Even crushed together on an icy January morning, we the people treated each other with remarkable tenderness and mutual respect. We were all proud to be Americans. Group around person in wheelchair near crowd
The crowd on our hilltop danced to keep warm and cheered wildly when President Obama finally appeared on the jumbotron TV screens. We imagined that Obama’s address and the stupendous view of 1.8 million people spread out from the Capital to the Lincoln Memorial was the highlight of the day. But that moment took place as we were leaving the National Mall weary and chilled to the bone. Wedged in a surging crowd and trapped between two cyclone fences, we approached a section of fence that had been torn to the ground. The man in the wheelchair ahead of us became caught on the fence and began tipping perilously before his wheelchair was unstuck by friends.

Sensing that we could not maneuver over this barrier, the people around us bent down and lifted Steph and her wheelchair into the air. She was frightened for a moment because she knew that her safety was in the hands of strangers. We held our breath too, but our new friends carried Steph and her wheelchair for twenty-five feet over the fence and surrounding tree roots and set her down gently. Wow. What better metaphor for the sense of collective purpose and determination that we all felt that day.
Steph in wheelchair and coat
Those around us on the long walk back to Steph’s apartment were no less kind. We arrived safely, numb with cold, but reminded once again that disability is no barrier to adventure and a great inspiration for creative problem solving and moments of grace.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Exciting Benetech Leadership News!

We have a great addition to our leadership team at Benetech. Betsy Beaumon, formerly of BEA Systems and numerous other high tech roles (including founding her own social enterprise in the 1990s), has joined us as our new Vice President and General Manager of Literacy Programs. The press release on the appointment has much more detail.

I'm particularly excited about Benetech's continued strengthening of our management team. Over the past couple of years, the growth of Bookshare has enabled us to bring on managers like Lisa Friendly, John Crossman, Reuben Firmin and Betsy Burgess. That's in addition to longer term Benetech leaders like Patrick Ball, Barbara Morrison, Jane Simchuk and Teresa Throckmorton. Having this kind of managerial bench allows us to take on new enterprises, and deepen and extend the reach of our current projects.

For me, this means I can invest more of my time in imagining the future of Benetech. We're in an unusual position this year to still be growing thanks to incredible support from our supporters and customers. Over the last year, I've spent half my time just on Bookshare, but Betsy Beaumon's arrival will allow me to worry less about the day-to-day operations, while gaining a partner for strategizing the future of our Literacy programs. While I remain committed to Bookshare's success, I look forward to spending more time supporting our expanding human rights and environmental programs!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Guatemalan Police Archive Finds Evidence in Disappearance Case

A Guest Beneblog by Tamy Guberek (Benetech HRDAG team member from Colombia)

There is important news this month from our partners at the Guatemalan National Police Archive, which has worked since 2006 with Benetech’s Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG). Workers at the archive discovered documents that led to the arrest of two active duty police officers suspected in the 1984 disappearance of university professor and labor leader Édgar Fernando Garcia. Garcia disappeared after being placed in police detention in Guatemala City.

While there is no public information about exactly what evidence these documents contain, prosecutors ordered the arrest of officer Abraham Lancerio Gomez on charges of illegal arrest, forced disappearance, kidnapping, abuse of office and breach of humanitarian duties. According to the Guatemalan newspaper Prensa Libre, Officer Ramirez Rivers, a former officer in the Guatemalan National Police, was also arrested.

The National Police, which was implicated in widespread human rights abuses during the country’s 36 years of internal armed conflict, were disbanded during the 1996 Guatemalan Peace Accords. Records in the archive contain critical information about police procedures during this conflict which resulted in an estimated 200,000 deaths and disappearances. Many families of the estimated 40,000 people who disappeared never found out what happened to their missing relatives.

The disappearance of Édgar Fernando Garcia is one of the best known cases because he is the husband of Nineth Montenegro who now serves as a deputy in the Guatemalan legislature. Montenegro founded the Mutual Support Group (GAM), one of the largest organizations representing the families of the disappeared in Guatemala. We congratulate our partners on the staff of the Guatemalan National Police Archive for discovering information which could finally help these families discover what happened to their loved ones - and bring the perpetrators to justice.

Garcia’s disappearance is one of the cases cited in the Report of the Commission for the Historical Elucidation supported by the Guatemalan government. The Guatemalan Supreme Court has mandated that these forced disappearances be investigated by the criminal courts under the nation’s Penal Procedural Code. piles of documents, workers in masks
The Guatemalan Human Rights Ombudsman (PDH), which is a cabinet level position in the nation’s executive branch, has been tasked with examining the estimated 80 million documents in the Guatemalan National Police Archive. The archive, which is the largest single cache of documents ever made available to human rights investigators in the Americas, was discovered by accident in 2005 when government officials investigated a crumbling building on the grounds of the former National Police headquarters in Guatemala City.

HRDAG has worked with the archive staff to map the contents and select a scientific random sample of the data. Members of the HRDAG team have conducted an initial analysis of this data to determine how communications moved within the police and between the police and other institutions. The analysis also attempts to answer what kind of policies and practices the police employed in relation to human rights abuses. The initial results of the HRDAG analysis will be presented at a special session of the meetings of the American Statistical Association in August, 2009.
Abraham Lancerio Gomez in helmet and handcuffs, in a crowd
Caption for photo: Abraham Lancerio Gomez, an active officer in the Guatemalan National Civil Police, is a suspect in the 1984 disappearance of university and labor leader Édgar Fernando Garcia. Photo by Prensa Libre

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Struggle for Book Access: Amazon (Blog Post #2)

Why You Shouldn't Depend on a For-Profit Business to Defend Your Civil Rights

The Kindle2 is a hot topic in the disability field right now. Many print-disabled people (people who are blind, severely dyslexic or a have a physical disability that keeps them from reading regular print books) see electronic books as a dream come true. But, it's a dream that the commercial ebook vendors keep dashing. The Kindle2's text-to-speech feature wasn't something that actually worked for blind people, but you could imagine how a software update could make this into an incredible product. But, we just saw Amazon fold when the Authors Guild pushed them to turn off the voice of these books: Amazon to flip on Kindle. And that is setting back the cause of people with disabilities who need that kind of access. We have an action by Amazon that sets back years of work to make ebooks accessible.

Print-disabled people of the world shouldn't be surprised that Amazon isn't going out of its way to help them. Amazon is a business, and is very focused on doing business on behalf of its shareholders. Amazon has repeatedly let down people with disabilities. They will continue until it's in their business interests to change. Change will happen when the organized blind sue Amazon or Amazon's partners, if they calculate that the cost of complying will be less than the cost of not complying.

A recent example of this was web site accessibility. Recently Target settled out of court with the National Federation of the Blind about its accessible website after Target suffered a couple of reverses in the court case against them. Amazon is the company that built Target's website. So, right after the Target settlement, Amazon made a deal with the NFB to improve the accessibility of the Amazon website.

Note that I'm not dinging the publishers here. I've found the publishing industry (and Google for that matter) to be willing to do socially responsible things voluntarily, because it's the right thing. We just announced that a major publishing group (Hachette) has voluntarily decided to help Bookshare deliver high-quality versions of their books to people with disabilities. Many other authors and publishers have done the same thing out of the goodness of their hearts, frankly. I think the publishing industry has a long and proud history of being willing to help people with disabilities, and authors are equally willing to support this as well.

Roy Blount Jr. in his New York Times essay Kindle Swindle? pointed out that the authors have long supported disability access. Unfortunately, when they turn it off on the Kindle, they are turning it off for everybody including people with disabilities.

There's so much to talk about here with Amazon, so let me focus on just a few key points:
  1. The Closed Platform problem.
  2. The Textbook problem.
  3. The Digital Millenium Copyright Act ("DMCA") workaround.
1. The Closed Platform problem.

There are many consequences from Amazon's closed Kindle architecture. The inability to support innovation is high on that list. If Kindle ebooks were available on the Web, other developers could fix many of its limitations such as lousy support for images, problems with complex layouts, inaccessibility. Tim O'Reilly covered this perspective in an excellent essay for Forbes Why Kindle Should Be An Open Book. [Side note: I love this title! In the 1990s Benetech was the leading provider of reading systems to blind people and our product was actually named "An Open Book."]

And of course, we have the dystopian vision from Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software movement, in his short story from the 90s, The Right to Read. Stallman outlines the long term implications of surrendering the freedom we have today with books: the freedom to read without being tracked or to lend a book to a friend.

I am a book lover, and have many books on my shelves. If I live another 50 years, those books will still be there, free to be given to my kids, given to friends, or sold to pay off my debts! I also have a Kindle1, and have bought a bunch of Kindle ebooks. I have none of those freedoms with my Kindle ebooks, and does anyone believe that my Kindle will still be working in 50 years (and will Amazon still be around with a successor product)?

But, for people with print disabilities, the Kindle remains a closed book. I've seen a couple of low vision people who are able to use it, but it's useless for most visually impaired people and has none of the access features desired by people with dyslexia.

2. The Textbook problem.
Although the Kindle right now is not a good choice for delivering textbooks, it's so clear that it has great potential. If you've had kids lugging backpacks with 20 or more pounds of textbooks, the idea of having an 8 oz. ebook reader with all the books they need for the year is pretty tempting. But, the lousy quality of accessibility of the Kindle presents a civil rights problem: schools can't adopt Kindles and lock out their disabled students.

And, somebody other than Amazon will suffer the legal consequences. The advocates will sue the schools for choosing Kindle textbooks and violating the civil rights of disabled students.

3. The DMCA workaround.

Thanks to lobbying from the American Foundation for the Blind and others, it's actually legal under the laws of the U.S. to crack a device like the Kindle to make its books accessible. George Kerscher and I laid the foundation for this with our essay The Soundproof Book. It's highly ironic that under the hood of the Kindle is a highly accessible ebook that could be terrific for disability access. The DMCA makes reverse engineering digital rights management generally illegal with a handful of very narrow exemptions.

The goal of the DMCA disability exemption wasn't to breed a whole generation of blind ebook crackers: it was to say it was against public policy in the United States to have digital rights management that stopped disabled people from reading ebooks. Unfortunately, Amazon (and others) haven't really got the message and keep creating more inaccessible ebook products.


Amazon has known about these problems for years, but they have calculated (correctly so far) that this isn't something they need to do something about. But, I'm pretty sure that things are going to change. Amazon's old friends at the National Federation of the Blind will be watching carefully for the negative impacts of the Kindle's inaccessibility on their community, especially students. The disability community usually doesn't sue first and ask questions later: companies usually get a fair amount of time to respond to these concerns. For example, when Google went from being very accessible to starting to release inaccessible features of new products, numerous people mentioned it to them and within a year Google was obviously fixing the problems.

Electronic books have gone ten years generally ignoring the audience that most desperately needs their product: people with print disabilities. Most of this community would happily pay for their books. I know that K-12 schools would far rather buy an accessible $60 textbook than spend $300-600 paying a teacher to scan and proofread it!

The days of ignoring the problem will be coming to an end. The right solution is universal design: that ebooks are accessible to all and at a fair price. Authors, publishers and technology vendors should make more money that way, and people with disabilities won't be caught in the crossfire. Hopefully, this approach will be adopted sooner so that all people have the right to read!

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Jimmy Fencing

My wife Virginia and I were able to squeeze in a quick trip to Boston to see our son Jimmy fence in the Intercollegiate Fencing Championships, his last fencing tournament in college. I'm between speaking four times in Illinois on Friday (will blog about that soon) and heading to Washington DC today (Sunday) for three days of meetings around Bookshare and social entrepreneurship.
Jimmy Fruchterman in fencing gear, his face partially visible through the mask, holding his foil in front of him
Somebody captured a great picture of Jimmy (which I asked him to send me) in full fencing gear during the tourney. It was great for us to be able to spend the time with him as he gets ready to finish up college and head on to his next adventure.

Longtime Beneblog followers will know Jimmy as the author of one of the most popular Beneblog posts Jimmy Does Davos about his experiences at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos a couple of years back. Fencing has been a lifelong passion for Jimmy and it sounds like it will continue past college: we hope so!