We are delighted to share that USAID, World Vision, and the Australian Government awarded Benetech a 2015 grant to improve literacy for primary school students who are blind in India. The new grant, under the three partners’ All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development literacy innovations competition, funds our proposed winning project to provide Indian students who are blind with mother tongue instruction and reading materials through Bookshare, our digital library of accessible books. This supports Benetech’s commitment to extend the benefits of Bookshare across borders to empower individuals with disabilities around the world, especially in developing countries, to live fuller lives.
USAID, World Vision, and the Australian Government established the All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development partnership in 2011 to improve reading for children in early grades through cost-effective innovations. Benetech is one of fourteen new grantees selected through a highly competitive process that elicited over two hundred proposals from fifty countries.
This project will allow us to tackle a pressing problem: in the developing world, students who are blind or have other print disabilities face formidable barriers as they pursue their education in the midst of a widespread book famine. In countries with several regional languages, such as India, even when a child with a print disability does receive an accessible text, it is the bare minimum to participate in class—with little or no reading materials to strengthen their learning outside the classroom, and few opportunities to complement their braille learning with other modes, such as audio. Preliminary data from teachers at our partner schools for the blind in India shows very low levels of early grade reading skills, ranging between 10-15%.
With support of the All Children Reading grant, we will address this challenge by developing and launching a pilot project to provide accessible educational content for primary school students who are blind in the Maharashtra region of India, where we will be able to capitalize on multiple existing Bookshare partnerships. Our two-year project will pair targeted literacy pedagogy focusing on braille reading with human-narrated audio content in Marathi, which is the language that is primarily spoken at home and in the community in Maharashtra. While Bookshare has revolutionized the availability and reach of accessible materials through digital text production and delivery, we are undertaking this human-audio effort to support languages where digital text-to-speech is of poor quality or not available.
We will pilot this new capability with at least one hundred students spread across three schools for the blind in Maharashtra, offering age-appropriate, high-interest books in their mother tongue in both human-narrated audio and hard-copy braille. This will allow the students to benefit from a multimodal approach to learning early reading skills, while ensuring that they receive a strong foundation in braille literacy and an early familiarity with assistive technology for educational purposes.
We will support this work by providing training on assistive technology and on Bookshare services to teachers, administrators, and parents in our target region. Our goal is to have 30-35% of our target students reading at grade level at the project’s end. In order to measure the benefits of our project and improvement in the students’ reading scores, we will implement a rigorous evaluation plan. This evaluation will inform our future development plans as we seek to replicate our pilot project on a larger scale.
Benetech has been working to provide accessible books in India since 2008. During that time, we have built a powerful coalition of partners located in India and the United States, and a solid ecosystem serving over 2,200 Indian Bookshare members with a collection of more than 180,000 English, Hindi, and Tamil accessible books. Bookshare’s work in India—the first country to have ratified the “Marrakesh Treaty” easing access to books for people with print disabilities—models how we can transform the lives of millions of individuals with disabilities through rapid growth of accessible content around the world.