Q & A: Global Literacy @ Benetech – Part 1

By Benetech, posted on


For the first installment of our Q & A series, we sat down with Betsy Beaumon, Vice President and General Manager of Benetech’s Global Literacy Program.

In Part 1, Betsy discusses our Global Literacy Program’s mission, the Bookshare initiative and she shares a story from a Bookshare user.
Q: How would you describe Benetech’s Global Literacy Program to someone you don’t know (like someone who might read this blog post!)?

A: Benetech’s mission is to harness the power of technology to address unmet social needs. Within our Global Literacy Program, this mission is translated into developing affordable technology to help the multitudes of people who remain underserved by the commercial technology field around literacy. Our primary beneficiaries today are people who have disabilities that prevent them from using printed information. Access to information is the critical first step on the path to quality education, economic development and social participation. At Benetech, we believe that all people have the right to gain access to information critical to their lives. Through our Global Literacy Program, we’re working to ensure that technology opens up new horizons for all people with print disabilities or intellectual disabilities around the world, not just for the privileged ones who can afford it.

We do this work through three major initiatives. The first, Bookshare, is the world’s largest online library of accessible eBooks for people with print disabilities, serving more than quarter million members in over 40 countries. The second initiative, DIAGRAM, is a field-leading R&D center focused on creating tools and standards for accessibility of images, graphics and math in educational materials. The third initiative, Route 66, is a web-based program that makes it easy for any literate person to teach adolescent and adult beginning readers to read.

Q: Bookshare is probably the most recognized initiative within the Global Literacy Program. What would you say have been the keys to its success?

A: I’d single out three main elements. The first is our effective leverage of technology for scale. Our pragmatic business approach and low cost model paved a path for delivering high quality content in a variety of ways. This has allowed us to meet our users where they are. Whether at school, at home or on the move, our users can access the books they need in the format that best suits them, using multiple devices of their choosing.

The second key to Bookshare’s success is collaboration. We seek and join forces with solid partners across sectors—from other nonprofits to federal and state agencies to publishers to impact sourcing providers.

The third success factor is our continuous push for growth and improvement. We’ve relentlessly seized every opportunity to raise the bar on the level of accessibility that we offer. For example, as users increasingly turn to mobile devices, we developed reading apps for both Android and iOS, based directly on their requests.

It’s the interplay of these three key factors that has helped us become the world’s largest online library for people with print disabilities and has put us in a position to solve the problem of inaccessibility of printed materials.

Q: What is an example of a user story that has truly moved you?

A: There are many inspiring stories, but one that has stuck with me comes from Brian Meersma, a student member of the Bookshare Advisory Committee. Brian is a junior at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South, NJ and has dyslexia. He’s an avid student and passionate about sharing what he’s learned through his experience growing up with a reading disability. In March of last year, Brian wrote a guest post on the Bookshare Blog in which he described how technology and Bookshare had improved his life. Consider this paragraph:

Today, in high school, I get almost all of my novels and textbooks from Bookshare and also like the newspapers and magazines. I read them on my computer or with the […] Read2Go portable app on my iPod touch. The app lets me read anywhere I want on the go. […] I like being able to read with a portable device and not being tied to a computer. Without Bookshare and Kurzweil, my grades would suffer. I wouldn’t be able to take the classes in school appropriate for my abilities and I wouldn’t be able to read the topics that really interest me.

Seeing how much technology and Bookshare have helped him has motivated Brian to share what he’s learned so that others don’t have to struggle with the challenges he had experienced. In addition to his participation in the Bookshare Advisory Commitee, Brian writes a blog about assistive technology devices and software and gives public presentations on this topic. Based on the responses to his Bookshare guest blog post, he’s definitely succeeding in setting an example for others. One response that particularly touched me came from a mother of a 9 year-old boy facing the challenges of dyslexia. She wrote:

Brian, You have no idea how much your post will bless my family […] We just found this out and I have been searching for EVERYTHING you mentioned in this article. You have just helped us in so many ways. I now have a place to start and to see what will help him. With tear-filled eyes I THANK YOU for your bravery and your willingness to inform and serve others.”

I’m grateful for all the feedback we receive. It reminds me how our work here at Benetech truly makes a difference in people’s lives.

Come back for Part 2, where Betsy discusses the landmark opportunity for materials that are born digital to be “born accessible” and the future of accessible materials!