Reading has always been a passion of mine and when I began to lose my vision, one of my biggest fears was the thought that I would no longer be able to read my precious books. In time, I realized that I had nothing to be afraid of because I could still enjoy the art of reading, I just had to learn to perform this task in a completely different way.
Looking back, I often wonder what it would have been like to have the technology and the availability of accessible print materials that are now offered to the blind and visually impaired. What a difference it would have made back then.
Fortunately, the advancements of technology and the dedication of organizations such as this week’s Follow Friday guest are making it possible for the blind and print disabled to be able to read.
The impact that this week’s guest has made and continues to make on a daily basis within the blindness community is just a small reason why I and the Fedora Outlier team choose to follow this valuable organization via Twitter!
Who is this week’s guest? I am so glad that you asked me that question. Please join me as I had the honor and privilege to interview Mario Oliveros from Bookshare.
Brie Rumery: For readers who may not be familiar with Bookshare, would you please tell us a bit about the organization?
Mario Oliveros: Bookshare is the world’s largest online accessible library of copyrighted content for people with print disabilities. It is a Global Literacy initiative of Benetech, a California nonprofit that creates sustainable technology to solve pressing social needs. Bookshare seeks to raise the floor on accessibility issues so that individuals with print disabilities have the same ease of access to reading as people without disabilities. In 2007 and 2012, Bookshare received two five-year awards from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), to provide free access for all U.S. students who qualify. For qualified individuals who are not attending a U.S. school, there is a minimal annual subscription.
BR: Who came up with the idea of creating Bookshare? Why is it so important to the blindness community?
MO: Jim Fruchterman, a computer engineer and rocket scientist from Stanford University in Palo Alto, founded Bookshare to reinvent the traditional library for the blind and to transform the level of access and equality in education. Traditionally, fewer than five percent of books were available in accessible formats. By making content more easily accessible and available, Bookshare strives to break down barriers to reading that prevented these underserved populations from participating fully in education, work and their communities. Jim knew that by using the power of technology, he could find a way to deliver more books for less cost and work with others toward equal access. You can read more about the history of Bookshare on the Bookshare blog.
BR: What types of qualifications are needed to become a member of Bookshare?
MO: To date, Bookshare serves more than 275,000 members who qualify with a print disability. These include visual impairments like blindness and low vision, physical disabilities, and severe learning disabilities. You can learn more about qualifications on the Bookshare website.
BR: What challenges does Bookshare encounter when it comes to making accessible reading material?
MO: To date, Bookshare has made leaps and bounds to provide accessible reading materials. We currently offer more than 225,000 accessible titles, which is the largest collection of accessible copyright content for people with print disabilities. We produce thousands of books every month thanks to dedicated volunteers, staff and partnerships with publishers, authors, and universities. It’s also important to note that Bookshare works hard to produce materials that are high quality, and we continually look to improve our quality assurance processes.
That said, we do face challenges in making all these materials accessible. One challenge is complex formatting. When Bookshare receives digital files from publishers, we convert and format them before we add them to the collection. Some digital files contain really cool elements, like “whiz bang” visual features that make the content engaging for readers, but are not accessible. These require our team to spend time on additional manual formatting. Another related challenge includes images in books. It’s a resource-intensive process to make image descriptions that are relevant, clear, and true to the content creator’s intent. In addition, when we don’t get digital files from publishers, the process to buy, chop, scan, proof, format and convert a print copy of a book into accessible format is longer than we’d like – and gets especially frustrating around back-to-school time when we’re getting a lot of requests for students eager to have their books at the same moment their peers do. The last one that I’ll mention is the breadth of material out there. We have so many publisher partners providing us with digital content, and we work to convert additional titles as requested, but there’s still so much material that we don’t have that folks want.
BR: What are some of the advantages of using Bookshare versus BARD, or Learning Ally?
MO: All of these great libraries serve people with print disabilities, and we encourage qualified individuals to explore them all. There are several unique aspects to Bookshare: 1) We have a huge collection of over 225,000 accessible titles, including not only educational titles, but also the most current bestsellers, newspapers and periodicals. Often, because of our relationships with publishers, we get new titles the same time they come out in the bookstore. 2) We have both DAISY Text and Audio formats that can be read with one of the many great compatible e-readers out there with high quality text-to-speech voices. Having both the text and audio is a great advantage. For example, students who need to write papers get access to the correct spelling in our books. Also, text allows our members to search entire contents of our books to find what they need. 3) Because we create books in DAISY Text formats, we’re able to add books to the collection faster, which is why our collection is so large and current. 4) For our DAISY Text books, these can be downloaded very quickly since they are smaller in size.
BR: How accessible is it for a user to navigate Bookshare’s website and/or Read2Go app?
MO: Bookshare, and our parent nonprofit, Benetech, are committed to accessibility. The Bookshare website, Read2Go, and Go Read app for Android are all accessible to visually-impaired readers. We’re constantly working on our website and tools to make it easy to find information and learn how to utilize our services. We want titles to be of the highest quality format and text, including image descriptions. As a demonstration, another Benetech initiative, The Diagram Center, is focused on creating accessible standards, tools, and policies to improve image descriptions especially complex content such as math or engineering formulas.
BR: How can someone become more involved with Bookshare?
BR: Why is it important for Bookshare to use Twitter and other social media platforms?
MO: Our online communities are one really good way for our members to get even more out of their Bookshare membership. Our Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and blog communities are active and lively places where members get the inside scoop on new books, features, and other news. Members can connect with both Bookshare and other members to ask questions and get answers. And they can also take part in member-only events like fun contests. We encourage all our members and fans to join and follow us one or all of our communities!
I want to extend a warm thank you to Mario Oliveros for taking time out of his very busy schedule to talk with me about Bookshare. If you would like more information about the organization then I strongly recommend that you visit the Bookshare website and if you are not already following them on Twitter then please do so by adding @Bookshare to your followers list.
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