Building an Ecosystem of FLOSS to Educate Students with Disabilities

Location: F151 Level: Novice
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Through programs like Bookshare and the DIAGRAM Center, Benetech’s Literacy program is leveraging technology to make sure that students with print disabilities have access to the content they need, from textbooks to periodicals, from images to audio. To achieve our mission, we are committed to participating in open standards communities and leveraging and contributing to existing and new open source software projects. This approach is designed to make sure that as the educational content landscape rapidly evolves —with more born-digital content, rising interest in open e-textbooks, increasing use of visualized data and more students graduating into an entirely digital workplace— print-disabled students are as “plugged-in” as their peers.

In this presentation we examine the open source accessible education ecosystem that is beginning to emerge through the intersection of Benetech’s work and the work of partners. As a case study, we’ll discuss the HFOSS Poet application, currently being developed as part of the DIAGRAM Center , a partnership between Benetech, WGBH National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM), and the US Fund for DAISY . This web application makes images in digital textbooks accessible for print disabled people (e.g. blind, dyslexia, cerebral palsy), through the crowdsourced creation of image descriptions by content creators, educators, publishers and volunteers. It also makes use of the standards work being promoted by the DIAGRAM Center and its partners. At the user facing end of the ecosystem, we’ll look at how Benetech is leveraging existing and related open source projects, such as NASA’s MathTrax , to provide greatly improved access to visualized science and math content. We will also discuss how we are bringing accessibility to existing and emerging user facing open source e-book technologies, such as FBReader and Readium .

Finally,we’ll discuss how the entire open source community can get involved with HFOSS for education, from developers and product managers to designers, technical writers, and more. It’s with ongoing technical volunteer contributions from communities such as OSCON that this growing class of software can make its maximum impact.

Photo of Gerardo Capiel

Gerardo Capiel


Benetech is a nonprofit 501c(3) software company addressing large scale and global needs in literacy, human rights and the environment. Our Literacy Program enables over 190K people with print disabilities (e.g. blindness, dyslexia) have access to books and textbooks via Bookshare – the largest library of accessible e-books with over 140K titles. In our Human Rights Program, we have developed Martus, which protects over 200K witness testimonies and other evidence of human rights abuses. Our statisticians have analyzed these documents and provided expert opinions at International Criminal Tribunals and Truth Commisions in Burma, Kosovo, Colombia, Congo, Liberia, India and Sierra Leone. And in our Environment Program, over 5,000 environmentalists use our open source Miradi software to manage and measure their conservation projects in over 100 countries .

Benetech’s newest project is SocialCoding4Good . The project aims to build upon the “hacking for good/change” trend by creating web tools to better connect software development professionals interested in volunteering their skills with nonprofits that are creating humanitarian free and open source software (HFOSS). This opportunity was identified through Benetech’s challenges with building volunteer developer communities around its open source software projects in literacy, human rights and environmental conservation management and measurement.

By using the SocialCoding4Good website software industry professionals will be able to search for HFOSS projects that are a match with their passions, skills, project needs and availability. On the other side, nonprofits, social enterprises and governmental agencies will be able to list their HFOSS projects, specify their timing and skill requirements and evaluate volunteers based on feedback/badges from other nonprofit or open source communities. We are currently in an initial phase of market research and pilot testing, which is being funded by The Knight Foundation.

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Picture of Kevin Cole
Kevin Cole
07/19/2012 5:20am PDT

I didn’t necessarily mean working with the population before age two. I was just saying that some of that population deafened before age two often have additional language barriers throughout their lives due to the lack of early exposure to language. So approaches to education for such students (of any age) need to take that into account.

Picture of Gerardo Capiel
Gerardo Capiel
07/19/2012 4:59am PDT

Kevin – I’m not as familiar with what’s being done for the deaf population, particularly before age 2. You may want to see if has some application.

Picture of Kevin Cole
Kevin Cole
07/03/2012 8:35am PDT

Any work with the deaf population? A significant number of deaf individuals have trouble with the printed word, particularly those who were born deaf or became deaf before age 2 and were not exposed to sign language during those critical first two years.


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