Friday, January 11, 2013

Bookshare without Borders: #3/3

Creating the World’s Largest Collection of Accessible Arabic eBooks 

Access to knowledge is the critical first step on the path to economic, educational, and social development. With this three-part blog series on our expansion of the proven Bookshare model internationally, we’d like to give you a glimpse into the ways in which Benetech provides people with disabilities around the world equal access to knowledge. In the first installment of this series, I described the Bookshare International library and where we hope to take it next. The second blog post looked at our growing Bookshare Spanish-language program. Now another important aspect of our strategy for enhancing Bookshare’s new language capabilities is developing the capacity to handle non-European scripts and languages so that the content may be presented in its original form in our members’ native languages. We’ve already built a collection of titles in Hindi and Tamil, two of the most-spoken languages in India, and last summer we released our first accessible collection in Arabic. In this third installment of our blog series, I’d like to focus on that achievement and share some of what we learned throughout the process of creating Bookshare’s first offerings in Arabic.

In 2011, we began collaborating with the Mada Center (Qatar Assistive Technology Center) to create accessible Arabic-language digital books. After intensive work by our Bookshare team, last June we released 100 titles in Arabic, making the Bookshare Arabic Collection the world’s largest collection of accessible Arabic ebooks! Our collection includes children’s books from Scholastic, contemporary books from Arab Scientific Publishers in Lebanon and literary books from the public domain from Kotobarabia in Egypt. These socially responsible publishing partners generously gave us world rights to their titles, thus allowing us to take the first significant step towards digital inclusion of Arabic speakers with print disabilities. We’re incredibly grateful to these visionary publishers who worked with us closely to overcome multiple hurdles, from getting files in the right format to battling various issues with digitizing Arabic to learning about assistive technology in the Arab world.

We’d also like to thank the Mada Center team for its great support throughout this process. To increase utilization of our Arabic collection, Mada offers free Bookshare memberships to qualified individuals in Qatar as well as training and advice on the use of assistive technology. Mada is also helping us encourage publishers of Arabic-language books to support this important initiative and provide additional content to be included in Bookshare. The initial collection has already inspired a new partner to come on board: the Emirates Association for the Visually Impaired (EAVI), a nonprofit organization that serves people with print disabilities in the United Arab Emirates. EAVI will purchase Bookshare memberships for any of its members interested in subscribing to our service.

Digitally processing Arabic-language content is no easy task. I’m very proud of our Bookshare team who did an amazing job tackling huge challenges to become the leading provider of accessible Arabic and one of the world’s experts in digital Arabic. As an example, we learned that there are serious obstacles involved in the process of electronically converting scanned images of Arabic-language text into a digital format (a process known as optical character recognition or OCR), especially when a high level of accuracy is required in order to render the text in DAISY, the accessible digital file format. Our team also had various adventures in learning about the complexities involved in computer processing of the Arabic diacritical marks (Tashkeel). Diacritics in Arabic are crucial to identifying how words are pronounced and to disambiguating their meanings. Native speakers usually omit these symbols when writing and they are not included in most adult literature, but they are very helpful for many text-processing applications, such as read aloud or text-to-speech (TTS) software, by which many of our members read Bookshare’s ebooks.

Looking ahead, our goals are to increase collaboration with partners in Arabic-speaking countries so as to reach a larger base of users who would benefit from Bookshare and to grow our library of Arabic titles. There’s so much more we could do to advance the path towards full digital inclusion of the world’s people with print disabilities. Please help us empower the multitudes who are continuously overcoming social and economic barriers to unlock a world of opportunities and information and improve their quality of life. Access to information, to knowledge, is crucial for realizing opportunity for people with disabilities, no matter where they live!

I would like to especially thank Noa Ronkin, Kristina Pappas and Robin Seaman for their extensive work in developing this three-part blog series.

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