November 28, 2018
One sentiment echoed several times through the great hall of the United States Institute of Peace on November 8, 2018: Digital does not mean accessible for children with disabilities.
Panelists from All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development’s (ACR GCD) plenary session at the 8th annual Mobiles for Education (mEducation) Symposium urged the audience of global education innovators and implementers to develop or implement digital solutions that embrace inclusive design for children with disabilities. Simply offering books and literacy materials in digital formats does not equate to accessibility, so more must be done to incorporate features including alt text with image descriptions, sign language video, voice-over, and text that can easily be enlarged, among other features, panelists noted.
“We want to make sure that all books are created equal and are open to everyone through universal design,” said Ginny Grant, senior product manager for the global literacy program at Benetech, an ACR GCD grantee that piloted an inclusive EdTech solution for children who are blind or low vision in India. “Digital doesn’t mean accessible, so the work has to be put in to make inclusive design available for all.”
Inclusive design was the impetus for ACR GCD’s Book Boost: Access for All and Sign On For Literacy prize competitions launched within the last year. Touting inclusive design models, the five finalists for the Sign On For Literacy prize showcased their solutions for expanding access to sign language and literacy content for deaf children in low-resource settings. Innovators shared examples of how they are using inclusive design from the onset of development as well as retrofitting current technology to be inclusive. Book Boost winners eKitabu and SIL LEAD also shared how they are testing business models for incorporating accessibility at the onset of book development.
Seeking a commitment to innovation for children with disabilities to be embraced globally and broadly by EdTech developers, ACR GCD challenged the mEducation Symposium audience to move from awareness to action when it comes to inclusive education. That commitment should extend to all who work in international education, publishing, technology and other fields considered vital to improve the well-being and future opportunities of children around the world.
“There is an economic case to pursue inclusive education,” said Josh Josa, disability inclusive education specialist for USAID. “This doesn’t just provide people with disabilities access; it improves access for everyone. The challenge is for all those working in education and technology to commit to inclusive design and think creatively on how to proliferate inclusive design tools to keep this work moving forward.”
One such tool is UNICEF’s Digital Accessible Textbook initiative, which brings together writers, publishers, disabled persons organizations, technologists and Ministry of Education representatives to develop guidelines to produce textbooks in accessible digital formats and set standards for features like narration, sign language, interactivity, and audio description of images. In addition to developing an intuitive tool children can tailor to best meet their learning needs, the initiative focuses on convening Ministries of Education to require that all textbooks are published in both hard copies and accessible formats. UNICEF also provides tools to publishers for standards and training to adapt content, or more importantly, incorporate accessibility at the onset of book development.
UNICEF is currently piloting the digital accessible textbook program in Kenya, with plans to expand testing in Rwanda, Uganda and Uruguay in 2019.
“Following universal design principles, books can be made accessible,” said Julie de Barbeyrac, chief of the disability section at UNICEF. “These features can also enrich the learning experience for children without disabilities.”
Complementing that work is Benetech’s Bookshare, the largest library of accessible ebooks, with more than 600,000 titles in 34 languages. The accessible library now boasts more than 15,000 members in India and is expanding to Bangladesh, Pakistan, Bhutan and Nepal.
Benetech is also looking to create a certification program for accessible content. The emphasis is on creating accessible content at the onset of book development, as retrofitting after a book is published can cost upwards of $1,000 per textbook, Grant said. Incorporating accessibility at the start enables authors—who have the most knowledge about what they’re trying to convey through images or words—to be more involved in the development of accessible formats, she added.
Moving forward, panelists agreed that partnerships will be key to securing inclusive education and materials for all children around the globe. “Of course, our biggest dream is that every child in the world has access to affordable, accessible, and quality education,” she said. “But I think the only way we can move forward is to work together, to create partnerships. This is the best moment to take this opportunity to push and align guidelines and standards so everyone who has an idea knows where to go for guidance and support.”
Partnerships are a key pillar of ACR GCD’s mission to source, test, and disseminate the most promising technology solutions that help children with and without disabilities learn to read. As we commit to expanding our programming focused on inclusive design and serving the most vulnerable children, we seek new partners to co-fund and promote these initiatives.
“We believe all children deserve the chance to learn to read, and because of that, we’ve embraced a more inclusive approach to our challenges and competitions,” said Deborah Backus, ACR GCD project director at World Vision. “We challenge everyone to think about how you design technology to make it more inclusive and more engaging for all children.”