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Beyond the Net Community Projects Growing the Internet

Tiflolibros digital library for visually impaired in Latin America awarded by UNESCO

Last November in Buenos Aires during the first LAC Regional Internet and Development Dialogue, we had the opportunity to listen to Pablo Lecuona talking about his organisation Tiflonexos.

Tiflonexos is a non-profit that works for the integration of visually impaired people through the creation of an online collaborative free-access library called Tiflolibros. We got to know the organisation in 2014 when they applied for a Community grant through Internet Society. So Nancy Quiros and myself decided to visit their converted apartment in Avenida Corrientes.

Tiflolibros  was created in 1999 by a group of blind friends who wanted to use the power of the Internet to exchange their digital books and widen their access to culture and education. Today it is run by a team of 15 and the library has grown to 52.200 digital books in Spanish available for more than 8.000 members with severe disabilities all over the world.

The Organization contributed to a favourable reform of Argentina’s copyright law in 2007, which was followed by other Latin American countries. On December 2016, they received the UNESCO Prize for Digital Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities.

Pablo Lecuona, founder and director, summarizes his vision of the future in the following points:

  • Increase the use of the library for educational purposes by converting the school books into digital version and training the teachers
  • Reach underserved areas of Latin America where there is less Internet access. And maybe spread to other languages as well
  • Be financially sustainable. At the moment Tiflolibros is depending on donations and grants to get to the end of the month

Braille menu printing for local restaurants is an extra source of revenue for the organisation.

So how can we all make a difference? In my view it all starts with being more aware of the issues and the challenges. 285 million people are estimated to be visually impaired globally. That is more than the whole of Brazil! For example, the Marrakech VIP Treaty made a big difference for the visually impaired in relation to copyright. The Treaty basically requires “Contracting Parties to introduce a standard set of limitations and exceptions to copyright rules in order to permit reproduction, distribution and making available of published works in formats designed to be accessible to visually impaired people, and to permit exchange of these works across borders by organizations that serve those beneficiaries.

When asking Pablo what he would like to change, he said: “80 parties or countries have signed the Treaty but currently only 25 countries or parties have ratified or accessed the Treaty. To facilitate the exchange of knowledge and to enable the creation of equal opportunities we need more countries to sign on.”

For sighted people, it is sometimes difficult to understand the challenges you face as a visually impaired. Personally I was faced with this issue last year when my husband suffered a temporary but severe diplopia (double sight). This lasted for about two months and it was enough to realise that good sight is taken for granted.

Thanks to the Internet a lot of things have been made easier for visually impaired. They can listen to incoming messages and dictate the reply to their phone. They can feel much more independent reading books and working on a computer, but they constantly need to learn new skills.

Tiflolibros offers also technical support and a discussion group where users can join to share their experience and ideas.  We express our appreciation to the project team for their outstanding efforts in giving a better chance to education and social inclusion to impaired people.

It’s not only about the access to the Internet and the library, it is what people can really do and how they can change their lives. It’s all about creating equal opportunities!

The story in their own voices

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We are interested in your project.

We are looking for new ideas from people all over the world on how to make your community better using the Internet. Internet Society “Beyond the Net Funding Programme” funds projects up to $30,000 USD.

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Case Study: Building the first digital library for visually impaired people in Ethiopia

Beyond the Net Journal: NoVA Ethiopia #1 Episode

According to recent studies, about 4 Million out of the 75 Million inhabitants of Ethiopia live with visual impairment. Being a blind person in Ethiopia causes daily hardships that are beyond any description.  Prejudices and educational limitation lead to economical and professional marginalization.

Together!, Ethiopian Residents Charity, with the aim of empowering people with visual impairments,  committed giving basic computer training in its study center as well as government schools. But simply getting the training is not enough as  access is limited and the information is not in an accessible format. In October 2015, Together! committee submitted to Internet Society grants “Beyond the Net Funding programme” to create a digital library for visually impaired.

The NoVA project (Non-visual access to digital library) aims to work with visually impaired students, professionals and job seekers to help get online information they need. NoVA wants to bridge the existing digital divide among sighted and visually impaired by serving as a way to access information at their convenience, without restriction. The digital library will offer Amharic and English screen readers and screen magnifier to facilitate the users.

We interviewed Woubakal Tesfaye, the NoVA manager, to find out the challenges they faced and how they solved them.

Woubakal, can you describe the project steps so far?

At the initial stage we selected web developers that have experiences in inclusive websites. That took time as most of the developers are unaware of accessibility devices and software for visually impaired.The next step was creating both Together! and consultants team. The team included sighted and visually impaired Together! staff and beneficiaries. After the first group discussion,  consultants finished the draft of the website. The team conducted a second meeting, mainly focusing on accessibility for visually impaired individuals.

What are the types problems you encountered at the beginning and how did you solved them?

At the beginning we faced a lack of competent consultants to develop NoVA. So our committee started looking for professionals with disability experience. We finally approached Cybersoft, a web design factory that recently conducted research on visual impairment and IT,  and also developed a national library archive for a government organization. We were able to negotiate the fee, mentioning that we are from a young NGO that is striving to make a change. They reduced their price by 80%.

What are the main challenges in building this digital library?

  1. How to make easy downloads of screen readers and screen magnifiers
  2. Creating locally recognized shortcut keyboard keys
  3. How to incorporate local languages. As Ethiopia is a melting pot of nations and nationalities the library will allow the user to select their preferred language.
  4. Creating an online forum where users can join and share their experience
  5. Copyright and producing audio books. We have just started a discussion with copyright holders of the Amharic novels that we’d like to convert into digital format.

How will this project be a great opportunity for the visually impaired of Ethiopia?

The first stages of the project will be about providing accessible resource and reference in electronic documents and audio books to visually impaired students, professionals and job seekers. NoVA will not only be the first digital library exclusively for visually impaired in Ethiopia, but it will offer a forum to create an online blind community. In the long run, NoVA will assist visually impaired to develop web surfing skills. It will also promote the theme of inclusiveness to people who build websites. We expect to see the first outcomes after the finalization and promotion of NoVA.

Share this story

If you like this story, please share it with your friends. That would tremendously help in spreading the word and raising the visibility of this project. Help more people understand how the Internet can change lives.

Do you have a great idea? We are interested in your project.

We are looking for new ideas from people all over the world on how to make your community better using the Internet. Internet Society “Beyond the Net Funding Programme” funds projects up to $ 30.000 USD.

Apply For Funding!

Want to create a project of your own? We’re holding an information session on 21 July so you can find out how to apply for Beyond the Net funding!