December 22, 2016
At age 15, Louis Braille invented a system that opened up the world of reading to people who are blind, deaf-blind, and low vision. While attending the Royal Institute for Blind Youth in Paris in 1824, he created the tactile system of six dots in a three by two grid to represent letters, numbers, and symbols. His inspiration? He “wanted the right to read books just like other children and so he worked to create a tactile alphabet that would be easy to learn, replicate, and use.” World Braille Day, January 4, is set aside to honor Braille. For us, the day is inspiration to continue to pursue his dream.
All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development (ACR GCD)’s work furthers his legacy by spurring the development of innovations that help all children learn to read. One such example includes the work of, Benetech, who, with funding from ACR GCD, is for the first time providing Marathi human-narrated audio capabilities to Bookshare, the world’s largest digital accessible library and Benetech’s flagship Global Literacy initiative. They are piloting this innovation in four primary schools in India, providing students who are blind/low vision with accessible educational content to listen to on low-cost audio devices while simultaneously reading braille. Importantly, the project is teaching students to read in their mother tongue, Marathi.
Before the project started, less than ten percent of the students at the project schools were reading at grade level and students were being read to only fifteen minutes per week over a loudspeaker. Now, the students are reading a minimum of fifteen minutes per day, aided by braille instruction in Marathi.
In addition, a “Story Auntie/Uncle” visits the schools twice a week to read to each class for about an hour. The goal is to increase reading levels overall. In February, evaluators will visit the schools to assess the children’s progress.
Eight-year-old Suraj is in the third standard at one of the schools Benetech is reaching. Suraj likes sports and animals like many kids—he’s crazy about playing cricket and chess and would love to have an elephant for a pet. His teacher, Mr. Panchal, noted that Suraj’s use of braille has improved significantly since the project started, his reading speed has increased, and he loves the stories now available to him. He says his favorite story is “My Family” because he never realized that a family could have so many people! Suraj is just one of many students benefiting from this newly-developed resource.
Suraj and his classmates are also experiencing another benefit. Society is often unaccepting of disability and the person becomes stigmatized as a result. This usually negatively affects the person with disability’s self-esteem and perception of their own abilities, including the ability to read. What’s more, because of attitudinal barriers, knowledge and resources to engage with students with disabilities are seen as unimportant. Which is why it was especially encouraging to see that Suraj and his classmates are not only making tremendous progress academically but are also exhibiting increased confidence and self-esteem.
We are grateful to the teachers and school administrators making a difference in the students’ lives and grateful to Benetech and their project staff for their innovation. Like Braille dreamed, they are extending the ability for more kids, like Suraj, to read books.
Benetech is a nonprofit dedicated to empowering communities in need by creating scalable technology solutions. Their work has transformed how over 400,000 people with print disabilities read. All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development, a partnership of USAID, World Vision and the Australian Government, is an ongoing series of grant and prize competitions that leverages science and technology to source, test and disseminate scalable solutions to improve literacy skills of early grade learners in developing countries. To read more stories about our other grantees’ innovative projects for children with disabilities, other edtech innovators, partnership opportunities, or to participate in future competitions, visit www.AllChildrenReading.org or follow us on Twitter.