If you wanted to read a book, how far would you have to go to get one? For a lot of people, it’s as easy as reaching into a bookshelf. Failing that, we can visit the local library, or order one from the internet at the click of a button.

Books are abundant in our everyday lives, whether we’re passing book shops, reading to our children or studying from them.

Most of us take reading for granted, but it’s not that easy for everyone, especially those with a print disability. Millions of people suffer from print disability – a condition which prevents a person from being able to read a printed book, either because of blindness or other physical impairment.

According to The World Health Organization, there are more than 285 million visually impaired persons in the world, 90% of whom live in developing countries. Those with a print disability can only read books specially formatted for that disability. According to the World Blind Union, of the million or so books published in the world each year, less than 5% are made available in accessible formats, such as daisy text/audio, EPUB3 and braille. In India, this proportion is barely 1%.

In Chota Udaipur in the city of Gujarat, India, those with a visual impairment face a gruelling journey, due to a lack of any accessible-reading facilities in the city. The nearest city with access to a library is Ahmedabad, which is 220 km away and six hours away by bus.

Accessibility for all

An initiative by the Research and Innovation unit’s Accessibility Center of Excellence (CoE) team at Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) has created a platform called Access Infinity that aims to address the lack of access to books that cater to print disabilities.

The platform brings together non-governmental organizations involved in producing and distributing accessible content as well as schools, universities, government bodies, and publishers, such as Bookshare, an international online library for people with a print disability, in one place.

In order to create the Access Infinity platform, the CoE team devised technology that automates the process of converting books into different formats.

This enables the one-click conversion of text in various formats, including .txt, .doc, .rtf, .html, and .xml into accessible formats such as Braille (.brf), and e-book formats such as DAISY and EPUB3.

In India, books available in Braille and other accessible formats are extremely difficult to find.

The platform offers tools for the seamless creation and distribution of reading materials. It can be accessed via multiple channels including mobile, hardware devices like the DAISY player or the nearest accessible library. The reading material can be downloaded in real time or offline in any language. Publishers and users share the platform, either uploading or downloading reading material.

Bringing all these institutions together creates a one-stop online library for the reading requirements of those with a print disability, free of charge. Due to the integration of the international library, Bookshare, many more books are available than would otherwise be the case.

“This is not just a library or platform, it is helping to create a complete, country-wide ecosystem,” Dr. Charudatta Jadhav, Head of TCS Accessibility said. “By building a platform that caters to the needs of every stakeholder, we can operate within the existing process and deliver what’s missing.”

Access Infinity was formally launched as an online library in August 2016 under the name Sugamya Pustakalaya, by the DAISY Forum of India (DFI) and the Government of India.

Converting challenge into success

However, while the goals of the online library may seem universal, many publishers have been reluctant to enter into this domain.

Issues such as piracy and security significantly delayed any progress. Technical know-how was also a challenge.

Prior to Sugamya Pustakalaya, publishers lacked the ability to prohibit or effectively police the sharing or circulation of content downloaded.

This led to organizations such as DFI having to collaborate with more than 150 NGO partners to convert individual pieces of content into accessible formats one by one. With Sugamya Pustakalaya, the official secretariat supervises the overall process and has the right to register organizations and publishers.

Similarly, for smaller, family-run publishers, producing and distributing the accessible content across a vast area like India was a daunting task as they lacked the organisation and infrastructure to reach the larger print-disabled audience.

Using this new platform allows these organizations to upload their book collections to Sugamya Pustakalaya and thereby reach out to the print disabled across the country. They also get a robust mechanism for storing their books and maintaining membership and book distribution data.

In turn, the impressive nature of this synchronized operation encouraged larger publishers to sign up, which meant that on day one, nearly 235,000 books were available on the platform.

Infinity and beyond…

Today, Sugamya Pustakalaya provides content in nearly 17 languages, with more than 50 libraries feeding into the system including over 200,000 pages of university study material and 450,000 titles in total.

This database has become a universally vital resource. Access Infinity is being integrated into the Accessible Book Consortium, a UN-WIPO initiative to enable a cross-border exchange of information. The platform has over 25,000 members with new users registering every day.

Following this success, DFI set an ambitious target to make one million books available online through the platform within the next three years.

With such a high rate of subscription, international interest and ever-growing library, it is hoped that this target will not just be met, but exceeded.

Thanks to Sugamya Pustakalaya, no one in Chota Udaipur has to contemplate a six-hour journey just to get a book.