A Call for Millions: Ending the Global Book Famine for the Blind

By Jim Fruchterman, posted on

There’s a global book famine afflicting people with disabilities. They lack the books they need for education, employment, and social inclusion. Billions have been spent addressing the problem over the past decade.

I have good news: For $5 million a year, we can build a global library that provides tens of millions of people around the world who are blind, low vision, or dyslexic free access to books that will work for them.

Benetech has already solved this problem for students in the United States. Our Bookshare library has over 550,000 books that have been delivered digitally over 10 million times. Bookshare adapts to the needs of all readers with a disability that makes reading hard, whether they read with their eyes, ears, or fingers. We’re already delivering services at scale in three other countries—Canada, the UK, and India.

Very few philanthropic opportunities come with the chance to solve a global problem with modest risk. This one does. We just need the resources to scale.

Why is a global solution to the book famine possible now? How can we solve a centuries-old problem for so little money?

  • We have the technology. Cheap devices and internet connectivity mean everything is digital. Our books will play on whatever tech the reader has in hand, even a $10 MP3 player.
  • We have the ebooks. The Global Treaty for the Blind makes it legal to create ebooks for people with disabilities without having to pay a royalty or getting permission. Publishers already contribute most of their ebooks to us for free, but The Treaty allows for crowdsourcing books at scale through a Napster-inspired model (but legal!).
  • We can scale quickly. We’ve already built the library in the cloud, meaning we can scale infrastructure at the click of a button.
  • We have a new business model. Free service with a “pay what you can” request (like Wikipedia’s) is a sustainable nonprofit model. The majority of donations stay local, sourcing content in local languages and creating jobs. We have hundreds of thousands of ebooks in a dozen languages already available globally.
  • We have baseline funding to sustain the core platform: we can serve the rest of the world for less than it costs to deliver the service in the U.S. because we rely on the community to build the digital library.

Helping people with disabilities, especially those who are blind, is a social issue of biblical proportions. We are now on the brink of solving this problem for tens of millions of people around the world. Let’s seize the opportunity!

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