Robin Seaman, Agent of Inclusion

On February 16th in Los Altos, California, I shared these thoughts on Robin Seaman’s impact on the world with her family and friends at her Celebration of Life.

Robin was beloved by the hundreds, if not thousands, of people who had the honor of coming into direct contact with her. That's the Robin we all collectively know personally. The sister, the aunt, the friend, the mentor. The shining bright spot in our day. A woman with that ineffable quality of elegance.

However, I'm here to spotlight the impact Robin had on millions of people who never had the pleasure of meeting her personally. You all might have heard something about Robin’s dedication to helping people with disabilities that affect reading. People with disabilities like blindness, visual impairment, dyslexia, physical limitations and returning vets with brain injuries -- anyone who cannot simply pick up a printed book and read it.

The nonprofit Benetech team built the revolutionary Bookshare library for this community, all online, and based on the powerfully flexible ebook. You can take an ebook, push a button and make it Braille. Make it bigger. Make it talk. Make it read karaoke-style, which happens to be the killer app for dyslexic kids. Whatever works for the reader who needs to read differently.

We named this library Bookshare because it was created with an army of crowdsourcing volunteers, many of them blind people themselves, who scan the books using optical character recognition. This results in an ebook, which can be shared by Bookshare legally with many thousands of other disabled readers. Robin arrived at Bookshare at a critical moment just over 10 years ago. We had just won the national contract to supply ALL disabled students in the United States, with ALL the books they needed to read to succeed in school, for free.

Our crowd sourced model couldn't scale to meet this need. In addition, the quality was often not good enough to deliver fully equal access to educational books.

We thought the publishers might help. However, the publishers disliked Bookshare intensely, calling us the Napster of books. That's where Robin came in.

Robin is why we have 700,000 books in Bookshare today. Not 70,000. Robin is why those books are all high quality, the same quality enjoyed by readers without disabilities. And Robin is why we've been able to deliver over 10 million accessible books to readers with disabilities.

You probably know that Robin was a pioneer in the ebook industry, but you probably don't know how she applied those experiences and her extensive network to the cause of advancing global literacy. It's important that I share what Robin did so you can appreciate her contributions to millions already, and hundreds of millions, if not billions of people in the future.

For the last 10 years, Robin has been a constant presence in the publishing industry, inspiring publishers to ever greater commitments to social good. She sweetly, and persistently, asked every major publisher to turn over all of their crown jewels, the master copies of all of their books for free to Bookshare. Oh, and she also suggested that world rights would also be nice. Almost all the publishers said yes. The rest could only bring themselves to say maybe in the face of the Robin social good charm offensive. And, they loved her for it. Robin was calling to their deep inner love of the written word, and the desire to share books with the world. For a minute, they could forget how tough it is to be a publisher, and hearken back to why.

However, building Bookshare into the world's biggest library for people with disabilities wasn't enough social good for Robin. For the last three years she's been leading the charge for the Born Accessible campaign. She has been working to convince all the major publishers, that they should ensure that their mainstream ebooks are fully accessible, so that a blind child, the dyslexic teenager, the person who has never learned to read, the immigrant learning a new language, the long distance commuter, just about anyone, can get all the benefits Bookshare delivers today to its readers with disabilities. If it works, libraries like Bookshare would mainly be put out of business. And Robin knew so clearly that’s the right thing to do.

Thanks to the effort led by Robin, four of the top five educational publishers recently presented their future roadmaps including this vision of inclusive publishing, of global accessibility.

There's so much more that I could share about Robin’s impact. How the Bookshare she helped build became the model for the global Treaty of Marrakesh ratified by fifty countries, including the United States in the last few months. About the dozens of tributes we read at Bookshare from students, from teachers, from leaders, from publishers, all appreciating Robin’s work. About the new edition of the Book Industry Study Group’s Guide to Accessible Publishing, just released yesterday and dedicated to Robin, in honor of her role as the principal editor. And much, much more.

I hope I've illuminated the impact on the world that this amazing woman had with her dedication to sharing the power of literacy, the power and love of reading with every human being, no matter what language, economic status, or personal ability.

Although our shared mission has suffered a great loss, and would have been far better served with her continued leadership, Robin’s legacy is assured. The future of publishing is most definitely set on this new, more inclusive path. Thanks always, Robin.

For more on Robin's life, you can read the Publishers Weekly article.


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