A blind boy in New DelhiIndia, is shown using his cell phone to access a human-narrated audio book from the Bookshare International library. (photo courtesy of the National Association for the Blind – Delhi)

Palo Alto, Calif.,-based Benetech received a grant Feb. 5 by USAID to create “human-narrated audio” Marathi language books for blind children in PuneIndia.

The grant for the two-year project will range in an amount from $250,000 to $300,000, Caroline Pepek, spokeswoman for USAID, told India-West.

World Vision and the Australian government collaborated with USAID to create the “All Children Reading: A Challenge for Development” competition in 2011. In the second year of the challenge, 14 grants were given to non-profit organizations throughout the world.

"More than 250 million children across the globe cannot read or write, representing a quiet crisis that is casting entire communities into a cycle of extreme poverty," said former USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah, announcing this year’s grantees.

"Through ‘All Children Reading’, we are rallying a global community of innovators to develop groundbreaking solutions to illiteracy, and in doing so, giving the world's most vulnerable children a chance to seize their potential," he said.

Grantees showcased their projects at a reception Feb. 6 at USAID headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Since 2008, Benetech’s initiative, Bookshare International, has distributed thousands of audio books to visually-impaired children through a cloud-based library. The books can be downloaded via an electronic tablet, a cell phone or a PC. Benetech does not provide the download devices, but several organizations in India do support blind children needing such equipment in order to use the library.

Currently, books are available only in English, Hindi and Tamil, Kristina Pappas, International Program Manager of Global Literacy, told India-West.

“There are lots of languages that do not have text-to-speech,” she said, adding: “If we can host a book in Marathi, we can do it in other languages as well.”

Students who are visually impaired in India face a multitude of challenges in attempting to complete their education, said Pappas. Few materials exist outside of braille learning. Only 10 to 15 percent of blind children are able to read at grade level, she said, adding that the pilot program’s goal is getting 30 to 35 percent of blind children at three schools in Pune to read at appropriate grade levels.

While Bookshare thus far has concentrated on older children, the new initiative is aimed at elementary school children, said Pappas, adding that the new material will be story books. One hundred children in Pune will participate in the pilot program; a rigorous evaluation program will be used to test the children and to determine whether the project can be scaled up to incorporate other Indian languages.

The initiative will officially launch in June, Pappas told India-West, noting that USAID, World Vision and the Australian government will serve as mentors on the project.

Through the Bookshare program, more than 2,200 blind children in India currently have access to a library of 180,000 books in English, Tamil and Hindi. In 2012, India ratified the “Marrakesh Treaty,” which eases restrictions on copyright law and allows organizations such as Benetech and others to freely reproduce human-narrated audio books as well as text-to-speech books.

In India, Benetech has worked with Pratham Books to forward the organization’s aim of providing at least one book for every Indian child.

“Bookshare has revolutionized the availability and reach of accessible materials through digital text production and delivery; we are undertaking this human-audio effort to support languages where digital text-to-speech is of poor quality or not available,” said the organization in a press release.

Benetech was founded in 1989 by former rocket scientist Jim Fruchterman. The organization focuses on creating technology to address human rights, global literacy and environmental conservation efforts.

The Sesame Workshop Trust – based in New Delhi – also received a grant this year from the All Children Reading competition. The Sesame Workshop uses the “Galli Galli Sim Sim” muppets on broadcast and radio shows and print material to teach young Indian children healthy eating and sanitary habits, alongside basic literacy. Interestingly, parents watch the programs alongside their children and learn as well. The workshop has reached more than 80 million children, according to the organization.

Over 250 million children across the world have no basic literacy or numeracy skills, according to statistics on the All Children Reading Web site. If all students in low income countries left school with basic reading skills, 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty, which would be equivalent to a 12 percent cut in world poverty, noted the organization.

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