Here in the United States, our Bookshare initiative is having a tremendous impact, especially on the lives of students. We now provide over 200,000 accessible books to more than a quarter-million people who are blind, dyslexic or have other print disabilities. And yet, while we’ve made significant progress in the U.S., we’ve only scratched the surface of meeting the global need. The sad truth is that millions of people with print disabilities around the world are still left behind.
When I first joined Benetech as the International Program Manger for Bookshare, I remember being captivated by the story of New Delhi resident, and Bookshare member, Dipendra Manocha. Early on in life, Dipendra was left completely blind due to retinitis pigmentosa, a disease of the eye.
When it came to school and continuing his education, Dipendra was going to face tremendous barriers to learning. Fortunately, he had a supportive network of family and teachers. With their help, he became an outstanding student—achieving the eleventh highest score in the state on his final school examination. From there, he got accepted into a PhD program in music.
I remember being shocked by what happened next.
After years of studying, Dipendra had nearly completed his PhD program. To help him with the revisions of his research thesis, he was appointed a reader—but the reader never showed up. Dipendra had printed books in front of him, but he couldn’t access the words on the pages. Ultimately, he missed the deadline for submission of his thesis and reluctantly withdrew from his PhD program.
I share Dipendra’s story because, for me, it underscores something important (and something that can be addressed): There are people with disabilities around the world who would be amazing engineers, doctors or scholars, but often can’t pursue an education or career because they don’t have access to the books they need.
That’s one of the many reasons Benetech launched an international initiative for Bookshare in 2008—to expand the impact of Bookshare’s work to people around the globe. Today, Bookshare International serves people in more than 40 countries, many in the developing world. In most countries we can offer more than 100,000 Bookshare titles in languages that include Afrikaans, Arabic, French, German, Hindi, Polish, Spanish and Tamil. With the recent adoption of the “Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired, or Otherwise Print Disabled,” we’re excited about the opportunity to expand our work even further.
With Bookshare International, we work hard to ensure that our collection contains locally relevant content targeted towards the specific needs and interests of our users. In each country, our local partners, such as disability NGOs, libraries or educational institutions, help us customize our services to the specific needs of their communities. Collaborating with these local partners is one of the things I like most about my job.
The availability of tens of thousands of accessible titles to people all over the world is nothing short of a breakthrough for people with disabilities—in developed and developing countries alike. Take, for example, the case of New Zealand, where the main provider of services for people with vision impairment is the Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind (RNZFB). Until last year, they had a collection of around 6,000 accessible books for their members. In July 2012, Bookshare International began partnering with RNZFB to make an additional 50,000 accessible books available to their members who signed up for Bookshare! Think about all those people, across New Zealand, who now have a whole new world opening up to them.
And think about what it means in countries like Ghana, Kenya or South Africa, or in Arab-speaking countries, where the availability of accessible books is miniscule. To give you a sense of the magnitude of the need we’re addressing, consider this: in July 2012, Bookshare released 100 titles in Arabic and instantly became the world’s largest collection of accessible Arabic eBooks!
The good news about Dipendra’s story is that it didn’t end with him dropping out of his PhD program—he turned adversity into powerful and positive change. In 2003, he founded an organization named Saksham that provides tools and resources to empower the lives of people with disabilities. He has also gone on to advance a number of other causes that have drastically improved life outcomes for people with disabilities in India and in the developing world. You can read more about Dipendra’s amazing work in The Indian Express.
If you’re interested in getting involved or becoming a supporter of our international work, please feel free to get in touch with me: KristinaP [at] Benetech.org. And if you know any people with print disabilities living outside the United States, make sure they know they are probably qualified to join Bookshare!