May 6, 2020
At a school for the deaf in Kenya, Georgine Auma stands at the front of a packed classroom of students. Positioned beside a large television, Auma laughs and connects with the students as she plays sign language storybooks on the screen and asks and answers questions in the Kenyan Sign Language she shares in common with the students.
It’s this same feeling of hope and fulfillment that Auma and the team at eKitabu wish to bring to the children of Malawi. As a winner of ACR GCD’s Begin With Books prize, eKitabu will create 270 born-accessible e-books—220 in Tumbuka and 50 in Malawian Sign Language (MSL)—for early grade children in Malawi who have few to no books in these languages. Content that is “born accessible” is created with accessibility features at the onset, eliminating the cost of time and resources required to retrofit an existing book with those features.
The books will be uploaded to the Global Digital Library (GDL), a web-based platform that offers free, high-quality early learning resources in more than 40 languages.
“Can you even imagine learning how to read without storybooks?” said Matt Utterback, co-founder of eKitabu. “It’s a really simple and powerful thing, and tech really opens an opportunity, particularly for creating accessible, local language books. Tech can also help lower the cost and make it sustainable.”
Globally, more than 387 million children of primary school age are not achieving minimum proficiency in reading, even though two-thirds of those children are in school. That challenge stems, in part, from the lack of quality, accessible reading materials in languages children use and understand.
In Malawi, lack of access to quality books in local languages is even more acute: only 10 storybooks exist in Tumbuka, a language spoken by more than 2 million people, and none are offered in accessible formats – such as books in audio, braille, large print or with sign language videos. No materials in Malawian Sign Language exist at all.
Auma, who grew up in Kenya and became deaf at age 9, previously served as a teacher to deaf students and now leads eKitabu’s Studio KSL and RSL (Rwandan Sign Language) projects, funded previously through ACR GCD’s Sign On For Literacy prize.
“Growing up, I read my way through school because teachers were not able to sign, and I couldn’t understand what was said in class,” Auma says.
eKitabu’s Begin With Books project, called Open Books Malawi, will scale work begun in Kenya and Rwanda through ACR GCD’s Book Boost: Access for All Challenge and Sign On For Literacy prizes. Through those prizes, eKitabu has delivered more than 120 born-accessible African language EPUBS to the GDL. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the sign language storybooks also were repackaged into Digital Story Time on Kenyan television to support the Kenyan Ministry of Education’s distance learning program.
Funding from those prizes also helped eKitabu significantly lower the cost to produce quality, accessible books. In 2017, for example, it cost up to $3,000 to produce a quality, accessible e-book. In 2019, their average cost to create accessible EPUBS was $50 per book, or $313 with translation or adaptation. The average cost to deliver a local sign language video storybook in 2019 was $550, including quality assurance.
“In the long term, we want to demonstrate that accessible digital content can be produced and distributed locally at a sustainable cost,” said Will Clurman, CEO and co-founder of eKitabu. “If we can do that, we catalyze a shift to born accessible content.”
eKitabu will also join ACR GCD’s new Sign Language Storybook Cohort (SLSC), consisting of other Begin With Books prize winners and ACR GCD awardees and their partners from Disabled Persons Organizations to determine standards for sign language storybook production in underserved languages. The cohort will help inform the development of a toolkit for creating sign language storybooks, with the hope of changing publishing models among book producers to incorporate accessible features.
“We’re excited about the opportunity to network and partner with other innovators to develop standards that will enable us to improve the quality of our sign language books,” Auma said. “We hope these collaborations will help us work in more African regions and continue to improve the quality of our content.”
For the eKitabu team, the passion to create quality, accessible content always rests on the looks they see in children’s eyes when provided a book in the spoken or signed language they use and understand. It reminds each member of the team how books have been influential in their own lives, and made the work they do for children across Africa possible.
“Many of us at eKitabu come from families in which a parent was a teacher,” Utterback says. “That forces us to think about the books and stories we loved growing up. We can’t imagine our childhood without them.”