Monday, December 16, 2013

Some of the Most Voracious Readers Can’t See At All!

By Christopher Hawthorne Moss

Most people when hearing the expression “books for the blind” will think of Braille.  This can be a daunting prospect for anyone who might imagine what it would be like to be blind, Braille being a
purely tactile medium and virtually a different alphabet.  The good news is that Braille, though important, is old news.  The misapprehension is based on two misconceptions: that “blind” means entirely unable to see; and that Braille is the only reading technology out there.  The fact is that about 90% of people we call “blind” has some residual vision.  I, one of those people, am here to tell you all about the other technologies feeding the appetite of some of the most voracious readers around.

A term that has been gaining popularity in order to provide inclusion of a range of reading disabilities is “print impaired”.  This means not only totally blind people and people with insufficient vision to read standard print, but also those people with learning disabilities and those with physical impairments precluding holding a print book up to read.  Grouping them together is handy because most of these folks can use the same alternate formats in order to enjoy books and other print material.  A confluence of general consumer preference, e.g., books on tape, and narrow population need has helped broaden the selection, as has the development of computer technology.  Let’s take a look at the many possibilities.

Braille – Yes, Braille still exists and is the preferred method of reading for many blind people.  It is,
in fact, the only specialized medium that requires literacy.  It has been helped by advances in technology, making production of Braille books faster and cheaper, and computers with what is called “refreshable Braille display”, a device that replaces the computer monitor with a row of pins that come up to make the 6-dot Braille cells, makes anything in digital text readable to the Braille user.  This medium has been most important for those people who are both blind and deaf.

Audio recordings - With first LPs called “Talking Books” and later cassette books made available by
libraries for blind and print impaired users, we had a more economical and generally accessible reading option.  The LPs and cassettes are recorded at half normal speed, and in the case of cassettes a 4-track technology used to get twice and even four times the content on a single LP or cassette.  The vast majority of books read by people who are print impaired are presently on cassette.  The trouble with that is that cassettes and the machines that play them are a dying technology.  Other media has been sought for the mass production by libraries for the blind.

Compact discs – Recorded books for the average reader are nothing new.  CDs have largely replaced cassettes in order to have the space needed to record unabridged volumes.  This technology, however,
seems to have fallen by the wayside in producing reading material for people with print impairments.  The search for a new medium to replace cassettes has been so delayed and lengthy that by the time a solution was found, CDs were no longer the optimal choice.  It remains to be seen whether the choice made was the best possible.

Digital audio downloads – It may seem like being able to download a digital file of a book is the obvious and most economical solution to providing books for people who are print impaired.  There are a few flies in that ointment.
One is that the majority of people with severe print disabilities is 60 or over.  Too large a number of that population has not “gone digital”.  The National Library Service has been looking for a way to serve both this and a younger community.  They have settled on a technology that stores narrated books on cartridges not unlike flash drives that are playable on a specific device.  These devices are expensive compared to similar ones available to the general consumer, and the libraries’ supplies for lending are severely limited.  Allowing those who are computer friendly to download the digital files, unlock them with keys for those eligible, and then read the books on any sort of device has for some Byzantine reason been rejected.  So we wait.

Digital text downloads - Happily, this is not the only way, to provide downloads.  An organization called provides downloads of text files that can be read in a number of ways.  They can be read by using the refreshable Braille display mentioned above, and the text can be enlarged using an application on a computer called a screen magnifier or read aloud by the computer using speech output.  There are applications that take this one step further by using music storage devices like mp3 players and the iPod to make all this quite portable.

Kindle2 - One of the most recent developments is the Kindle2 by  Like other Kindles, you can read books using their digital paper technology, but with the Kindle2 a screen reader is
available to read the book aloud.  The average person will find the reading voice tiresome, but it is as good as any such print impaired people are accustomed to.  Thanks to such a device, print impaired people are more and more able to read recently released books, no longer having to wait through the cumbersome selection and production process for library audio books.

Reading devices – And now we come to the be-all and end-all, the electronic book reader.  For instance, I have a Plustek Book Reader, a digital scanner that also converts graphical text to print intelligible to a screen reader.  All I have to do is put a book face down on the device, and it reads it aloud to me.

Far from being forced to use Braille for all my reading, something that would severely limit my choice in reading material, whether for work or pleasure, I can now listen to books on cassette, on CD, on my computer, on my iPod and my Kindle2, and barring all other choices, on my Book Reader.  As a double English major and an author, this is the best news I could have!


Christopher Hawthorne Moss started writing at the tender age of seven, and the stories that went into his first novel, "An Involuntary King," (published under the name Nan Hawthorne,) occupied him for all of his teenage years. After a career as a writer and trainer on nonprofit management issues and disability awareness, he decided it was high time for the characters who were his dearest friends as a teen deserved to get a life of their own.That accomplished, he went on to write two more historical novels with a third in progress. He lives in Western Washington State with his partner and doted upon cats. You can visit Christopher Moss at visit

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1 comment:

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