Reading Books in the Electronic Age: Next Topic/Philadelphia Computer Users Group for the Blind and Visually Impaired

When I was growing up, visually impaired readers had very few sources for obtaining accessible books. For most of us, our primary source was likely the National Library Service. Books were sent to us either in Braille or in recorded format. The recorded books, known as talking books, were played using cassette tapes or phonograph records. Records were played on a rather large record player with, at least on the one which I had, a detachable speaker. Tapes were played on very rugged but still large tape players, equipment which was also issued by NLS, meaning that it wasn’t yours to keep. Braille books often consisted of several volumes, with the average novel taking up 2 to 3 thick volumes, being shipped in large containers. I’m sure many of us have memories of having stacks of books, and the containers they shipped with, taking over not only our bedroom but perhaps even the entire house, driving our other family members a bit bonkers. Magazines, while available through NLS, were few in number. There were a few other specialized libraries but most of us probably started with and resorted back to NLS for the majority of our reading needs, even though the amount of material was a drop in the bucket compared to what was available for sighted consumers. Also, once a book was published in print we would likely have to wait for nearly a year before we could get our hands on that book through NLS, assuming that NLS chose to make it accessible in the first place. Once we knew that our local NLS affiliate had the book, we would order it, usually by calling a librarian over the phone, and we would then wait for the book to arrive in the mail, with free matter shipping meaning we’d have to wait even longer for the book to arrive.

I’ll bet that most blind readers never even thought to set foot in a public library, unless it was a time when they began offering books on tape for patrons to borrow. Beyond that, most libraries and bookstores were pretty much inaccessible to most of us. When I was a kid, acquiring a scanner for converting printed material into an accessible format was possible but the technology cost around thirty thousand dollars, putting the capability out of reach for most of us, myself included.

Fast forward to 2017. While NLS may still be the go-to source for books for many of us, books no longer need to be delivered to our door in big, bulky containers. Thanks to the BARD service, we have the capability to download a book in minutes and play it on a variety of players we can actually own for ourselves such as a Blaze ET,
Bookport Plus or the Victor Reader Stream. We can even download them and read them on our phones, tablets or iPods. For those who use electronic Braille, a Braille book can be downloaded in less than a minute to be read on a Braille display, without needing to worry about flipping over the address card and putting the boxes in the mail. Our public libraries offer not only books on CD but downloadable books as well, which can be read on our computers, tablets or smartphones. Not to mention that many libraries also offer free access to online digital content, such as various journals, magazines and encyclopedias.

While brick and mortar bookstores may still be inaccessible to us, we are now able to independently browse the virtual bookshelves of online stores such as Kindle,
Barnes and Noble, Blio,
Bookshare and Learning Ally, without needing to ask for the assistance of a family member or salesperson. Once we find the book that we want, we can download it, usually in less than a minute, and instantly have it available to read on our device of choice. Many of these online stores can also provide us with access to magazines as well as books. Today, if a book is published in print, chances are that we can get it in an accessible format the same day our sighted counterparts can get it in print, considering that more and more sighted readers are reading books on Kindles, Fire Tablets and iPads just as we are. Thanks to the built-in accessibility of these devices, we can buy a reading device such as a Kindle e-reader or a Fire tablet at a very reasonable price, such as the new $49.99 Fire 7 tablet from Amazon. If the book or magazine we want isn’t available in an accessible format, the prices of scanning options have come down significantly since the days of the clunky thirty thousand dollar Kurzweil Reading Machine. In addition to software such as OpenBook and the Kurzweil 1000, there are options which are even more inexpensive, such as the KNFB Reader app, available on iOS,
Android and, as of March of this year, Windows 10.

During the next phone meeting of the Philadelphia Computer Users Group for the Blind and Visually Impaired I’d like to discuss this topic, in depth, with any of you who are interested in discussing it. Questions for possible discussion might be:

  1. What are your favorite sources for books?
  2. Are there sources which you use for books which I have not mentioned and which you feel we should know about?
  3. How do you prefer reading books? On an iPad? A Victor Stream? An iPhone?
  4. Do you have questions about using these or other services?

If you have something to share about this topic, I’d love to hear from you. All are welcome to call in and participate or just to listen. Even if you’re outside of the Philly area, you’re more than welcome to join us.

When: Friday, May 26

Time: 8:00 PM Eastern time

To join us, the number to call is

(712) 432-3900

When asked to enter an access code, enter

391477

Followed by the pound key.

Looking forward to our next phone meeting.

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