Benetech’s New Image Description Tool Improves Accessibility of Graphical Content for Students with Print Disabilities

Benetech has long been a pioneer in providing innovative services to people with print disabilities. This week, Benetech’s DIAGRAM Center has announced the release of an open source web application for creating and editing crowdsourced image descriptions in books used by students with print disabilities. The Poet application developed by DIAGRAM helps level the playing field by making otherwise inaccessible graphic content available for students and other readers who cannot read traditional books. Poet supports image descriptions for electronic books created in the international DAISY standard for digital talking books and will be compatible with descriptions for ebooks in the EPUB3 format. The DIAGRAM Center team has also created an image data content model which will provide standards to define and enhance the efficacy and interoperability of accessible images as the project evolves.

DIAGRAM stands for Digital Image and Graphics Resources for Accessible Materials. Our DIAGRAM Center is dramatically changing the way image and graphical content for accessible educational materials is produced and accessed. Before this initiative, critical illustrations in math and science books could only be studied by those reading traditional texts. The Poet application allows users to upload a digital book, quickly review and navigate to images in the text, and add image descriptions that assist readers with print disabilities such as vision impairments. Poet presents the images within the text, which allows the describer to fully understand the context.

Sighted readers receive all the text and images in a printed book so the subject comes across completely. Poet will give readers with vision impairments access to fully described images which is especially important for textbooks that contain lots of charts, graphs, and maps. This is especially true as more and more important textbook content is only presented in a graphical form. To add image descriptions to a DAISY book, a teacher or other user of digital texts could visit a website that is hosting Poet, such as and upload a book from their school server, or select a book that has already been uploaded. The teacher could then add alternate image descriptions and download the book again when they are done. Any ebook in the DAISY 3 format can be submitted for image descriptions and read by DAISY compatible software that supports image description playback. Information about devices that support image descriptions can be found at the DIAGRAM website.

The DIAGRAM Center was launched in May 2010 by Benetech with support from the US Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP). The Center is managed by Benetech in partnership with the WGBH National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM) and US Fund for DAISY (USFDAISY). Two members of the DIAGRAM community were just honored by the White House as "Champions of Change" for their work supporting science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education and employment for people with disabilities. George Kerscher, a co-Principle Investigator of the DIAGRAM Center through our partner the USFDAISY, and Steve Jacobs, a member of our Tactile Graphics working group, have both been honored.

Benetech's digital Bookshare library is currently using Poet to add image descriptions for its accessible ebooks used by people with print disabilities. The descriptions are inserted into the book’s digital files and are read aloud by accessible book-reading applications such as Benetech’s Go Read (Android) or Read2Go (iOS/iPad/iPhone) apps. Bookshare is seeking volunteers who can apply their expertise in specific subject matters to describe images. Once volunteer describers sign up as Bookshare volunteers, they can log into the Poet tool, select books, view the images, and enter descriptions for a variety of texts. Books with image descriptions will go back into the Bookshare library for students with print disabilities to use in their coursework. The texts include Bookshare’s well-established digital rights management (DRM) protections which use electronic fingerprints in addition to legal agreements. This approach safeguards against illegal sharing of books, yet allows students to use their preferred assistive devices to access the books they need.

Bookshare volunteers have already described thousands of images primarily in science, technology and math textbooks at the junior high and high school level. Groups such as high school or university clubs are welcome to participate. A pilot image description project at Brigham Young University is reaching out to students in the English, engineering, and education departments asking them to help ensure that every student has equal access to textbooks.

If you or your school group would like to volunteer to add image descriptions to accessible books, please get in touch with us. Together, we can help ensure that graphical illustrations are available to readers with print disabilities and make the promise of equal education for all students a reality.


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