Yesterday, September 25th, at the 2013 Annual Meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), Benetech announced a Commitment to Action—the defining feature of CGI. Our commitment is to increase service and expand the number of accessible books for people who are blind in India through Bookshare International, an initiative of our Global Literacy Program. We are embarking on this project with the support of a generous grant from the Lavelle Fund for the Blind.
As the General Manager for our Global Literacy Program, I’d like to tell you a bit more about the work this grant will make possible, the lasting impact it allows us to make and why this project advances CGI’s mission of creating and implementing original solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges.
First, let me provide some important background. India has the largest population of people who are blind in the world. In fact, it’s estimated that one out of every five people in the world who are blind live in India. It’s also estimated that the literacy rate among Indians with vision impairment is between 20 and 25%, compared to a literacy rate of 65% in the general population.
One of the primary reasons for this low literacy rate is the scarcity of accessible versions of books that individuals with print disabilities can use. And, unfortunately, for the majority of these individuals, disability correlates strongly not only with a low literacy rate, but also with related outcomes of unemployment, poverty and social exclusion. However, changes made to Indian copyright law in 2012 will help us to reverse those low literacy numbers.
The change, known as the Copyright Amendment Bill, included major provisions to benefit Indians who are blind or otherwise print disabled. It also provided the necessary legal framework for Benetech to work with our local Indian partners to deliver accessible versions of any book or periodical published in India, irrespective of publisher permission. The amendment is similar to the United States’ Chafee Amendment, which allows Bookshare to deliver over 200,000 books to over a quarter million people with print disabilities in the U.S.
Benetech has been working to provide accessible books in India since 2008, when we launched our “Bookshare India” service as part of the Bookshare International initiative. Since then, we have built the technical capabilities to host and process books in Hindi and Tamil, and a solid ecosystem serving several hundred Indian Bookshare members with a collection that currently includes about half of Bookshare’s total 200,000+ accessible titles. However, before the passage of the Copyright Amendment Bill, we were not allowed to scan local Indian titles without publisher permission. This significantly limited the local content we could offer to our members in India.
Now, with changes to the copyright law in effect, and thanks to the grant from the Lavelle Fund for the Blind, we will be able to work with our Indian NGO partners to provide Indian users with more locally relevant content, including educational materials, which are often created by regional or national publishers.
Over the next three years, we plan to work with our lead Indian partner, the DAISY Forum of India (DFI), as well as other Indian disability organizations, to focus on growing Bookshare India in three core areas: outreach, content development and partner delivery. We will increase our impact in India by an order of magnitude, serving 5,000 new users, including at least 1,500 student users from targeted universities.
We will achieve this expanded reach by hiring two local consultants who will work with our partners to extend outreach to potential new members. These specialists will also increase utilization of our services through training for new and existing Bookshare users. We will also add 1,000 new locally relevant titles in Hindi, Tamil and English, emphasizing educational materials that directly meet the needs of our users in India. By the end of this project, we expect to see strong growth in the number of Indian Bookshare members and an explosion of accessible content available to them.
We’re very excited about the impact this project can achieve: we’ll be able to take a big step forward toward realizing the potential of Bookshare International to help people with print disabilities in India—and millions of others globally. We know that we’ve just scratched the surface of what we could possibly do to empower individuals with disabilities around the world to live fuller lives.
Bookshare India models how we could help catalyze the rapid growth of accessible content in many other countries. And with the recent passage of the “Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired, or Otherwise Print Disabled”—which promises to make it possible for people who are blind, or have other print disabilities such as dyslexia, to get access to the books they need no matter where they live—there is a real chance for this positive change to occur.
We’re looking forward to collaborating with the growing number of partners interested in supporting our work. We hope you join us!