Bookshare without Borders: #1/3

Bookshare International Library

We’re always thinking about new ways in which Benetech could go deeper and help many more people. While we’re extremely proud of our achievements in the field of accessibility and disability rights, we know that we’ve just scratched the surface of what we could possibly do to bolster parity of access to information by people with disabilities. Bookshare, our flagship literacy program, is the world’s largest accessible library and currently serves more than 230,000 members with visual and learning disabilities. But this is just the tip of the iceberg, as literacy remains an elusive dream for the majority of the world’s people with print disabilities. Benetech is on a mission to make information accessible and affordable for all individuals with print disabilities who could benefit from our innovative literacy solutions. We’re making securing new funding for Bookshare’s international expansion a top priority!

Reading a Bookshare-downloaded book on the BrailleNote portable device
Launched in 2007 to replicate the proven Bookshare model internationally, our Bookshare International library has already grown to serve members in more than 40 countries, many of whom are in the developing world. Our international members now benefit from an ever-growing collection of accessible books: more than 70,000 titles (out of Bookshare’s 170,000+ titles) are currently available in most countries – a figure that oftentimes far exceeds the number of books available to the general population in developing world countries. These ebooks can quickly be turned into Braille, large print or be read aloud by a synthetic voice synthesizer. Moreover, earlier this year we began offering books in MP3 format. This is a most exciting development: it means that anyone with a cheap MP3 player or a phone that plays MP3s can have access to our books. We’re grateful to our socially responsible publishing partners who give us world rights to their titles, even though they are not required to do so under international copyright law.

We have built Bookshare International upon three principles. The first is developing strong local partners, such as disability NGOs, libraries or educational institutions that help us customize our services to the specific needs of their communities. Our partners are responsible for verifying and maintaining records of each member’s proof of disability – a process that is best done with local knowledge. They also provide outreach and user support, which helps us keep our costs low as well as build local capacity to meet accessibility needs.

The second principle is sourcing locally relevant content. With support of authors and publishers, we provide our international members with books that are targeted towards their specific needs and interests. For example, in developing countries, we aim to help our members pursue educational and employment opportunities. We therefore have a large selection of computer science titles as well as books that prepare readers to take civil service and bank exams or to apply for government jobs, which are often available to people with disabilities.  But, we have far more to do to ensure that all Bookshare users have access to the local content they need!

The third pillar of Bookshare International is developing new language capabilities. This is an area of special focus for our Bookshare team. My next two blog posts will be on this topic. Our current collection includes books in Afrikaans, Arabic, French, German, Hindi, Polish, Spanish and Tamil. My second blog post in this series will describe how we are growing our Spanish-language program. While titles in English and other European languages comprise the majority of our current collection, we are also developing the capability to handle non-European script and languages so that the content may be presented in its original form in our members’ native languages. We began with Hindi and Tamil, two of the most-spoken languages in India, and have recently added Arabic, which opened up our services to countries all across the Middle East and Northern Africa. The third blog post in this series on Bookshare International will describe our adventures creating the library’s first offerings in Arabic.

Bookshare International’s balanced portfolio of developed and developing member countries enables Benetech to offer locally affordable subscriptions to our members. Revenues from developed countries such as the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and Denmark, where subscription fees are comparable to those in the United States, help us underwrite the cost of memberships in developing world countries such as India, Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria. In fact, in these countries we are serving an even larger social mission of ameliorating a pervasive “book famine.”

We envision a future in which the world’s people with disabilities can easily access the books they need for education, employment, and full social inclusion. Our team is brimming with ideas for making that vision a reality. For instance, we would like to create a mobile version of Bookshare that would allow users with no easy access to a computer and wired Internet to benefit from our services. We would like to launch an intensive expansion of Bookshare throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, where we already have initial partnerships. We’re also looking forward to scaling Bookshare in India, where there’s now a great opportunity to revolutionize the availability of accessible materials in the wake of the newly passed Indian copyright law. With this new copyright exemption, local Indian organizations serving people with disabilities can now provide accessible formats of any book or periodical in India, much like the Chafee Amendment allows us to do in the United Sates. We’re standing by to help support these Indian organizations with the technology and services of Bookshare in pursuing these expanded digitization efforts. We would love to be the technology back-end, enabling every country to have its local equivalent of what Bookshare is in the U.S. Of course, we have many more exciting ideas for transforming the lives of millions of people who could benefit from our services.

Do you know any people with print disabilities living outside the United States? Make sure they know they are probably qualified to join Bookshare! We invite you to read more information about our international membership. Please consider joining us in growing Bookshare International and helping us see that the technology of accessible books serves all people who need it, regardless of where they live.


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