When it comes to accessibility of books, blind and visually impaired people now have more options. Braille readers can use Braille displays, while those who prefer large print have a variety of magnifying devices to choose from. The wide selection of digital book players also makes it easier for those who want to listen instead to choose their favorite device. E-readers and smartphones and tablets are also revolutionizing the way we all access books. Gone are the days when we had to lug around heavy Braille or large print materials. This commentary is not intended to debate which methods are better or worse, but rather to share my opinion on the current state of book accessibility.
Just like today, books were previously made accessible in Braille, large print or audio formats. Nonprofit organizations like the American Printing House for the Blind in Louisville, Kentucky have produced books in all three formats for over 150 years. I remember receiving my textbooks and other books in Braille and tape as a child from this and similar organizations and libraries. Thanks to these books in alternative format I was able to complete my school assignments and read the latest best-selling novels.
I remember waiting several weeks and months to get textbooks simply because they were still in the process of being converted. Of course, this created a huge problem when I still hadn’t gotten them during the middle of the semester. Not that I was excited about reading my math or science textbooks, but this meant I couldn’t keep up with my peers. I could certainly listen to class discussions or have someone read them to me, but that simply wasn’t the same as being able to read by myself and at my own convenience. At times my teacher of the visually impaired (TVI) had to Braille the most important pages so I could study for tests.
Braille books are written in separate volumes. My geometry textbook, for example, was 63 volumes, while Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – one of the longest books in this series – is 13 volumes. Let’s also not forget about the books on tape, which were also divided into separate cassettes. A typical novel was in at least three or four cassettes, while textbooks could occupy roughly 20 tapes. Imagine having to search for the books or cassettes that had the chapters you needed to read, and of course carrying them around in a backpack wasn’t exactly pleasant! I remember times when I had to carry home at least three Braille books, a portable tape recorder and a few cassettes so I could get my homework done!
Books can now be accessed more easily by all. Sites like bookshare.org and learningally.org give digital access to a wide collection of books, periodicals and other learning materials. The Braille Audio Reading Download (BARD) program from the Library of Congress also carries thousands of Braille and audio books. These and other websites have made it possible for blind and visually impaired to access books on their assistive or smart devices in a matter of seconds. Best of all, we can easily navigate through the book by sentence, paragraph, page or chapter – there’s no need to spend countless minutes fast forwarding or rewinding! The portable nature of today’s technology allows us to carry hundreds of books at once.
Without a doubt, books can be made accessible to the blind and visually impaired in many ways. Why then is it that blind and visually impaired people worldwide only have access to less than 10 percent of print material? Besides being ironic, I think that this is highly unfair, especially to those in third-world countries who often don’t even have access to a basic education. Although we can access books through technology, many mainstream e-readers are still not fully usable to us. What’s the point of me having the latest E-reader in the market if I can’t see or navigate through the various menus and features?
I think the lack of accessible print material is not because people intentionally want to exclude us, but rather because many are still unaware that this problem even exists. If we take the time to educate and advocate authors, publishers, manufacturers and the general public about the subject, then maybe blind and visually impaired people throughout the world will have better access to books. Education and literacy are power, and access to books can and will give all blind and visually impaired people access to more opportunities and a better future.