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Benetech wants to make it easier for individuals with print disabilities to have access to the information they need. To make this a reality, the organization is turning to crowdsourcing.
Individuals with print disabilities cannot effectively read because of “a visual, physical, perceptual, developmental, cognitive, or learning disability.” The Reading Rights Coalition estimates that there are 15 million print-disabled people in the US.
While individuals who have trouble seeing can still access the text through the Braille system, it is impossible for them to decipher the images that go along with the text; this is also true of textbooks. Sciences that rely heavily on images, like mathematics and engineering, are especially difficult to comprehend without being able to visualize the concepts.
That’s where Benetech comes in. The organization’s Digital Image and Graphics Resources for Accessible Materials (DIAGRAM) Center recently revealed the open source Poet application, which will crowdsource image description for the print disabled.
With Poet, users can upload books in the DAISY standard – a digital talking book format. They can then review the images in the text and create captions that will make it easier for the print disabled to comprehend the concepts hidden in the text. Once a book has been uploaded, other individuals can sign up as volunteers to help with the image description. Each volunteer is matched with texts that cater to his or her strengths.
“If you have a lot of expertise in biology, you may get a few chapters from a biology textbook,” explained Anh Bui, DIAGRAM Center senior manager. “If you have a lot of expertise in special education and/or content for print disabled students, you’d be part of the quality assurance team.”
To increase the number of volunteers, DIAGRAM has begun to reach out to corporate social responsibility managers.
“Getting a group of people together from a company for half a day or a day, ordering some pizza and getting everybody set up on Poet,” said Bui. “You can get an enormous amount of description work done that way.”
So far, 41,000 images have been described by volunteers using Poet.
The DIAGRAM team also encourages others to take advantage of the open source software for other needs. “If you want to run your own image description warehouse, you can do it with Poet,” Bui said, laughing.
The DIAGRAM Center’s work has been deemed so valuable over the last few years that the U.S. Department of Education has awarded the organization a five-year “Bookshare and Innovation for Education” award. The center will receive $6.5 million per year through 2017. Along with fueling the DIAGRAM Center’s other projects, the funds will also be used to help expand Poet’s capabilities, as well as increase the number of users on the app.
While the team has already been able to help thousands of students get equal access to education, Bui says DIAGRAM still has plenty of room to improve Poet, both in terms of accessibility and functionality. The team plans to work on bringing the technology into classrooms, and offer new features like multiple layers of description and helping non-specialized individuals describe complex mathematical images.
While Poet brings a lot of educational benefits to those living with print disabilities, it may be the app’s other uses that prove to be the most rewarding.
“We had some images from the children’s Magic Tree House books described, and somebody wrote in to say, ‘Thank you so much for doing that, because I have always wanted to access [the images],’” Bui said. “It’s the kind of thing that the rest of us would take for granted.”