Last December, Benetech – through its SocialCoding4Good program – was invited to participate in SanDisk’s Day of Service. The event brought together technical employees with two accessibility projects from the DIAGRAM Center, one of Benetech’s Global Literacy initiatives. Approximately thirty SanDisk participants learned about the software tools that Benetech uses to translate images in STEM textbooks into descriptions that individuals with print disabilities can understand and access through web browsers, 3D printed models, and other web-based accessibility tools.
Kristina King Cohen, Senior Manager, Training and Communities, and Madeleine Linares, Volunteer Coordinator, discussed why image descriptions are important and how to create them using Poet, Benetech’s open source software tool. For many of the SanDisk volunteers, this was the first time they had been introduced to terms like print disability, accessible books, multi-modal reading, and assistive technology. The group talked at length about what makes an image description effective and what it looks like when a book is fully accessible. In addition, they gained a firsthand understanding of the struggles that readers with print disabilities face when trying to read traditional print books.
Then the real work began. The volunteers added descriptions to several history and science textbooks. For many volunteers this was the first time they had to imagine the information a reader with a visual impairment or a severe learning disability might need in order to comprehend a graph, chart, map, or other type of image. The group described approximately 150 images and added sixty-eight new image descriptions to the Bookshare online accessible library, thereby increasing the total number of books that are fully accessible.
The second project involved the use of 3D printing for accessibility. 3D models add another dimension of depth to traditional images and open doors for multi-modal learning. Amaya Webster, Project Coordinator at SocialCoding4Good, gave a presentation on the types of images in STEM textbooks that might be good candidates for 3D models. For example, a printed model of a DNA double helix allows tactile exploration. Other images, such as a tightly-packed group of atoms, would not translate well to a 3D printed object since it would feel like a blob of balls.
Amaya then engaged SanDisk volunteers in a search and discovery project to help them understand what the DIAGRAM Center does, why the work is important, and how it fits into accessibility. Accessible technology should aim to be cheaper, faster, and more customizable, and 3D printing meets all three of these criteria. The DIAGRAM Center’s next goal is to reduce the technical complexity and time intensiveness around 3D printing.
The next project for SanDisk volunteers and the SocialCoding4Good team involves building and upgrading several modules in Poet and exploring its long-term use in the accessibility community. The team will use an open source cooperative coding model and open Poet’s code base to developers. We are grateful for the opportunity to showcase why technology for social impact can be rewarding on both a personal and technical level, and we’re excited about continuing conversations around open source and SocialCoding4Good. We’d sincerely like to thank Phil Kliza, Gisela Bushey, Kelly Petrich, Bob France, and Itzik Gilboa for connecting Benetech to SanDisk volunteers, and we look forward to continuing our volunteer programs with SanDisk through 2016.
Kristina King Cohen also contributed to this article.