Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Accessible eBooks for Equal Opportunity

Kevin Leong was in kindergarten when he experienced an organic brain injury that forced him to relearn everything from walking to using the bathroom. For several years, he struggled in school because his vision was blurry and reading normal size print was grueling. He could no longer keep up with his peers in the classroom.

In the United States, there are all too many students like Kevin, who are denied equal opportunity to engage in the same curriculum as their peers without disabilities. One of their main challenges is that they do not have adequate access to educational materials that are necessary to learn and succeed in school.

In 2004, the United States passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, requiring schools to provide special education services to eligible students. However, despite such efforts to implement programmes that level the educational playing field, a profound achievement gap persists between expected and actual performance of students with disabilities. For instance, about 40 per cent more eighth-grade students with disabilities are reading below the basic achievement level compared with peers without disabilities.

A significant factor in this gap has traditionally been a lack of complete and timely access to educational materials in alternate formats (like Braille, audio or magnified text) that suit readers with disabilities who cannot use standard print – such as those who are blind, cannot physically turn the pages of a book, or have learning disabilities like dyslexia. Although legal and regulatory requirements stipulate that schools must provide accessible ‘equivalent’ resources for students with disabilities, in practice the majority of these students do not have equal access to textbooks and other instructional materials that make up the primary resources of the general curriculum.

Bookshare student member Kevin Leong sitting outdoors, reading on an iPad.
Accessible ebooks and Bookshare have helped sixth grader
Kevin Leong overcome his reading challenges.
The good news is that major changes in technology are reforming education. In particular, electronic books (or e-books) offer the possibility of dramatically improving access for students with disabilities – and for disadvantaged children everywhere. This is because e-books (unlike traditional print) can easily be rendered in many different ways and presented in the format that best suits one’s needs. E-books, therefore, make access to information an affordable reality, as more and more people, including students, have a device in their pocket capable of operating as an accessible e-reader: from inexpensive mobile phones and MP3 players to Braille note-takers that can store thousands of e-books in digital Braille. It is our collective responsibility to continue unlocking the potential of the e-book to bring equal access to knowledge and learning for all.

Consider how the accessible online library Bookshare – an initiative of Benetech, a Silicon Valley non-profit that builds technology solutions addressing social problems – is transforming the lives of American students with print disabilities.

Thanks to e-book technology, Bookshare today serves over 300,000 students with a collection of more than 300,000 accessible books – the world’s largest library of its kind. When students with disabilities need books for school or simply want to read the same books as their peers without disabilities, they are likely to find that e-book in Bookshare and able to download it in the format of their choice to use at school, at home or elsewhere. Moreover, these accessible books are available for free, since the United States Government funds the Bookshare library to meet requirements in national disability rights and education laws.

For American students with disabilities – including Kevin, who is an active and enthusiastic Bookshare member – the availability of accessible books means staying on top of their schoolwork, and that leads to increased self-esteem.

The Bookshare library is made possible by a copyright exception: Section 121 of the United States Copyright Act, also known as the Chafee Amendment. This exception allows authorized non-profit entities like Benetech to create accessible versions of copyrighted books without the need to request permission from publishers (or pay a royalty), and then to distribute these versions exclusively to people with qualifying disabilities who cannot use regular books. Roughly 1–2 per cent of students in the United States meet these requirements. Students outside the United States are not covered by this national copyright exception, because every country has its own copyright law.

Yet, accessible e-books could be helping millions more students in the United States and worldwide. What can be done today to build this accessible tomorrow?

First, it is critical to keep engaging in legal advocacy for ratification of two landmark United Nations disability treaties. The first is the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)—a vital framework for creating legislation and policies embracing the rights and dignity of all people with disabilities. The other is the recently adopted Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired, or Otherwise Print Disabled – an international copyright treaty that would make a copyright exception for people with disabilities a global norm and allow sharing of accessible books across national borders.

In addition, it is essential to ensure that all newly created digital content is made accessible from the outset. All e-books should have an audio capacity, using whatever smartphone or music playing device a person has in their pocket. Good design can and should be accessible design. Instead of one-size-fits-all, forcing all students and educators to work within the limitations of a single approach, it will then be possible to adapt content and technology to meet the learning needs of each student. With this universal design approach, e-books that meet the needs of students with disabilities simply work better for everyone.

This is a critical and hopeful moment, as major shifts in the publishing and technology industries will make it possible to realize a vision of equal opportunity and quality education for all the world’s children.

This essay originally appeared in UNICEF's The State of the World's Children 2015.

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