“Si Tu Veux, Tu Peux”: Lessons from Bookshare Asia/Africa Membership Head, Zainab Chinikamwalla

By Julianna Wright, posted on
Zainab stands at the front of a classroom of elementary age students, who listen sitting on colorful rugs.
Zainab gives a presentation on Bookshare to a group of school children.

 Zainab Chinikamwalla is the Head of Membership in Asia and Africa for Benetech’s Bookshare Initiative, the world’s largest library of accessible ebooks for people with reading barriers. Visually impaired since childhood, Zainab believes passionately that disability should not stop anyone from progressing forward in life. She joined Benetech in the early days of Bookshare’s international expansion and has played an integral role in helping grow Bookshare’s impact in India and beyond.

Si Tu Veux, Tu Peux

Zainab attended an integrated school, where there were no accessible books. When she was ten the school that she attended stopped grading her exams, promoting her to the next grade without evaluating her learning or giving her the opportunity to do her classwork. When Zainab’s parents confronted the principal about this problem, the principal denied their request that Zainab receive the same treatment as her classmates, asserting that Zainab should be grateful to be allowed to attend school at all. Thankfully, India had strict laws around integrated education, and the threat of legal action finally motivated the school to accept Zainab’s exams, but the principal continued to make things difficult for her parents.

Despite these challenges, Zainab flourished in school. A passion for the French language led her to pursue a bachelor’s degree in economics and a master’s in French. Studying French posed its own unique challenges for Zainab as a blind student. She couldn’t take notes and had to depend on others to write her assignments, even though they did not know the language. Nonetheless, her French teachers encouraged her: “Si tu veux, tu peux.” If you want to, you can, which Zainab took to mean “With determination, nothing can stop you.”

Accessible Books Open New Worlds

There was no one to teach Zainab to read braille, so her mother would take the textbooks and carefully copy Zainab’s assignments in large block print. She also relied heavily on personal assistance from readers, which came with its own set of challenges.

“It was terrible to be so dependent on others,” shares Zainab, thinking back. “A neighbor or friend would come and read for an hour. Then they’d say ‘Okay, I’m going and I’ll come back.’ But that could be a week or even a month.” Relying on readers also meant that she could not reread books or sections herself.

When Zainab was first introduced to Bookshare and accessible ebooks, she jumped at the opportunity to read on her own.  Zainab read 24 books in the first month, enjoying English and French classics such as Pride and Prejudice and Le Petit Prince. “I never could read any French books on my own, which I can do now in Bookshare. This was my greatest pleasure.”

Career Shift to the Social Sector

Zainab spent many years as a translator and French teacher winning many accolades for her excellent teaching capabilities. In 2010, she had an epiphany that sparked a career change. “I said to my mom, I have achieved whatever I want to, but there are people who haven’t gone that far, who don’t know about technology, and don’t know what opportunities could be open to them.” She embarked on work to connect other visually impaired persons with the technology and accommodations that could help them thrive.

In 2013, she visited Benetech’s office in Silicon Valley, and she knew that she wanted to build a career with Bookshare: “I thought to myself, I wish I could provide accessible books to millions in India.” The dream became a reality in February 2014, when Zainab became the first member of the Bookshare India team.

Growing Bookshare’s Impact in India and Across the Globe

Much has changed since her early days with Bookshare. In 2014, she was all alone, and then Dr. Homiyar Mobedji joined in 2015. Today, there are five members of the India team: “I’ve been with Bookshare since its infancy in India. When I first started, we had 190 Hindi books and no other Indian languages. People would come at me left, right, and center, saying we can’t use this, you don’t have this language, but I always believed in Bookshare.”

Today, thanks to the hard work of the entire India team, more than 20,000 people with reading barriers in India have access to more than 650,000 books in multiple localized languages, including Bengali, Gujarati, Kannada, Marathi, Malayalam, Punjabi, Tamil and Telugu. Entire school curricula are now available in Bookshare, making it easier for students to study independently.

Zainab has many things to be proud of in her work with Bookshare. But the best part, she shares, is when a Bookshare member first gets the book they desire and starts reading. “They are SO happy!” she says. “I can’t express myself how grateful and how blessed they feel.”

We at Benetech are all grateful for Zainab’s determination and zeal for helping others read and learn in ways that work for them.

Read More Bookshare India Stories

Technology Puts Career Within Reach for Blind Engineering Student

Sadaf Khan Answers the Challenge

About Bookshare in India

Benetech has been providing accessible books in India since 2008 with a powerful coalition of partners and a solid ecosystem serving over 20,000 Bookshare members with a collection of more than 650,000 English, Hindi, Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, Telugu, and Gujarati accessible books. The ratification of the Marrakesh Treaty in India allowed many more books in the Bookshare collection to be available to Bookshare members in India. Additional funding enables us to bring even more books to more individuals with disabilities in India.

Contact for Bookshare Asia & Africa: zainabc@bookshare.org // +919650211575