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Widernet to provide data on disabilities

BY MARY KATE KNORR | NOVEMBER 29, 2011 7:20 AM

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A local grass-roots movement has begun deploying digital libraries to underdeveloped nations to provide information encouraging the inclusion of people with disabilities.

The Global Disability Rights Library program, organized by a University of Iowa project called WiderNet, collects information about all types of physical and mental disabilities. The collection is then placed on a disk drive, which can then be plugged into any computer and accessed as an Internet-style database.

The libraries encompass topics such as ways to accommodate and treat disabilities, methods of communicating with people who suffer from disabilities, and other information useful to disabled persons' organizations across the globe.

"They're presented with resources that they never knew existed and resources that they can see immediate use for," said Professor Thomas Cook, a codirector of the program.

Because of the project's unique initiative, the U.S. Agency for International Development issued a grant to support it in 2009.

The grant provided WiderNet with $1.6 million for the funding of 60 digital libraries to be distributed internationally. It is a three-year grant that will end in the fall of 2012.

"We worked a lot with people from [the Agency for International Development] and then its council on United States International Council on Disabilities," said Sam Bouwers, a digital librarian who collected research for the project. "People at [the International Council on Disabilities] came up with an outline of what they wanted the portals to look like, [and] my main task was to look at the outline and find resources to show them."

The International Council on Disabilities is considered to be a "content partner" of the project, Cook said.

"It is connected to disability organizations around the world," he said. "It's been a main part in feeding us information."

The project's present focus is the distribution of the libraries.

"The first year and a half [of the grant] was really about developing the educational materials," said Tomeka Petersen, a staff member of the WiderNet Project. "Now, we're at the stage of deploying the digital library."

Twenty-seven locations have been selected so far in countries such as Ethiopia, Zambia, Bangladesh, India, and Peru. Sites are chosen based on a competitive application process.

"We have well over 600 applications, so we have 10 times more applications for organizations that say they could use these resources," Cook said. "I'd say that's a pretty good indication of the need for this information."

Bouwers said WiderNet Project's role as a grass-roots movement played a large part in collecting information as well.

"We really wanted to keep this a grass-roots movement so we could find really good resources from small organizations," she said. "It's really fun to see this aspect of the population being built up from the ground up."

Cook said among the selected locations, reactions to the program have been extremely positive.

"The general reaction we get is they're like a kid in a candy store," he said. "Think of someone that has never seen the Internet and is dealing with an issue in their life, and along comes someone who gives them a million resources— they can't get enough of it."


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