Saturday, December 03, 2011

Leveraging Impact through Technology (LIT)

The annual observance of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD) is today, December 3rd. The Day aims to raise awareness of disability issues with a focus on the rights of persons with disabilities and the benefits derived from their integration in the social, economic, cultural and political life of their communities. People with disabilities make up an estimated 15% of the world’s population of 7 billion, and they remain largely marginalized and affected by discrimination and unemployment, among other significant difficulties. The theme of IDPD 2011 is “Together for a better world for all: Including persons with disabilities in development.” This year, for the first time, IDPD is commemorated with supporting sub-themes (see the full list here), to draw attention to key issues that come into play in the intersection of disability and development processes. One of these sub-themes is “Accessibility: removing barriers and promoting disability-inclusive development.”

Of course, accessibility is right up Benetech’s alley and the focus of our Literacy program. In my Fall 2011 President's Update
, I mentioned some of our incredible recent achievements in this core program, including the amazing milestones of our Bookshare library. Bookshare is dramatically exceeding its five-year collection and member targets at the close of the fourth year of our Bookshare for Education (B4E) project funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP). Today I’m delighted to share the exciting news about the new award we just received from OSEP to build upon Bookshare’s success and significantly improve access for students with disabilities.

This last September, Benetech won a 3 million dollar award over one year from OSEP for a project we call Leveraging Impact through Technology, or, very appropriately, LIT. In partnership with the American Institutes for Research (AIR), the LIT project will dramatically enhance the availability and quality of accessible educational material for students with print disabilities at all levels of education. Through the LIT project, we’re adding many new innovations to the groundwork laid by the B4E project, with a focus on three core areas: content, tools, and utilization. Here’s a glimpse at what we’re delivering:
  • Open-content, publicly available and freely shared image descriptions and reusable graphical models to improve accessibility of NIMAC textbooks and Common Core content (this is so cool, I'm going to write another blog just on this aspect: look for the Triple Play blog!)
  • Exciting new tools, including a free, open source Android ebook reader and a free web-based ebook reader along with an accessible bookshelf in “the cloud.” These will enable educators to easily assign accessible books to students, and allow students to access these materials – available in mp3 and DAISY audio – on multiple devices of their choosing, whether at home, on the move, or at school.
  • Free professional development for school districts across the country in order to increase utilization of Bookshare and serve as many students as possible.
Our innovative approach has revolutionized the traditional library for people with print disabilities. Bookshare is currently serving 150,000 (and counting) students with a collection – the world’s largest – that tops 126,000 accessible books, including NIMAC textbooks, teacher recommended reading, reference materials, periodicals and best-selling titles. Thousands of ebooks pour into the library from over 168 publishers and textbook requests are fulfilled every month. This innovative approach is now opening up completely new horizons.

One of the reasons why the LIT project is so exciting and cool is that it enables us to pursue some of these new directions, using tech innovation to scale up efforts to ensure equal access to quality education by students with disabilities for years to come. In the U.S., Bookshare is allowed to serve only students with a legally qualifying print disability per the Chafee Amendment to the Copyright Act. Yet those who qualify represent but a small fraction of the demographics that can benefit from accessible books. With the LIT project – especially with its open-content aspects and new tools – we’re setting our sights on changing the lives of many more students. We’re honored and proud to embark upon this new project!

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