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Access to Information is a Universal Human Right

By posted in Bookshare, Benetech, Global Literacy on June 13, 2017 at 12:45pm


In new book, Jim Fruchterman explains how accessible ebooks help people with disabilities obtain education, employment, and social inclusion

“We want the right to read the same book at the same time, price, and place as everyone else.” This simple statement from the disability community sets forth the challenges of making books accessible. According to Jim Fruchterman, founder and CEO of Benetech and contributing author to a new book, Disability, Human Rights, and Information Technology, ebooks offer an incredible opportunity to meet these aspirations.

In chapter 9, Ebooks and Human Rights, Jim spells out the challenges faced by individuals with print disabilities (i.e., disabilities that interfere with the reading of standard print) prior to the advent of the ebook. Individuals with visual impairments, physical disabilities, and learning disabilities were often dependent on others to read to them. A limited number of books were available in large print, but they are cumbersome to transport, often abridged, and expensive to produce for a limited audience. Only ten percent of blind people can read braille, and for those who can, the selection of books is limited as they are not commercially viable to produce on a large scale.

Fast forward to the transition from paper to digital that created new mass-market opportunities that far surpassed a simple change in format. For example, digital text can be converted to several accessible formats — mp3 audio, braille, and highlighted text in enlarged fonts with text-to-speech narration – that can be read on a variety of affordable devices like tablets and smartphones. “The ability to be reading a new book one minute after choosing it is powerful compared with waiting days, weeks, months, or years,” says Jim.

Photo of a student listening to a Bookshare ebook being read out lout on a compeer screen.

Add in universal standards (EPUB 3), copyright law exceptions, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Marrakesh Treaty, and other policy changes all converging to enable wider distribution of accessible ebooks. Notes Jim, “The growing human rights consensus that people with disabilities need equal access to information, together with improved technology, means that we should be entering a world where everything born digital is born accessible.”

The ultimate goal is content that adapts to the needs of each individual user rather than the user being forced to adapt to the limitations of the content-delivery technology. That future can’t get here fast enough.

Disability, Human Rights, and Information Technology is now available in Bookshare to all members worldwide.