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Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 July 2012 Issue  Volume 13  Number 7

Technology and Productivity

Series: Removing the Stress from iOS: A Blueprint for Incorporating Touchscreen Products Into the Classroom, Workplace, and Community

Part III Success With iOS: iOS and E-books, An Alternative Means of Reading

One of the most compelling trends that has played out over the past decade is the emergence of the e-book (electronic book) amongst sighted book readers. While there may still be a lingering fondness to shop for and access hard copy books, it seems that more and more authors, publishers, and readers are warming up to the idea of using electronic publications. Some of the reasons for this include:

  • Space. E-books can be delivered on devices that take up a miniscule fraction of the space of their hard copy counterparts thus allowing for libraries of countless books to be stored on a single device.
  • Rate of information. One can purchase and instantly receive the contents of an e-book.
  • Interaction. Many e-book applications allow the reader to bookmark and make notes within the e-book without altering the actual publication, which one does when taking notes within a hard copy book.
  • Book updates. Authors can easily make updates, addendums, etc. and release new editions to a previously released publication.

Ironically, those of us who are visually impaired have been accessing books via synthetic speech and refreshable braille for well over three decades. I can still recall my first exposure to an electronic book and using a Versa-Braille to access it. It's equally ironic that many of the same reasons listed above were reasons why we, as a vision impaired community, moved towards electronic book reading decades before our sighted counterparts caught onto the idea.

What is EPUB?

EPUB, or "electronic publication," is a free e-book standard developed and maintained by the International Digital Publishing Forum. The purpose of the EPUB standard is to provide authors, publishers of electronic text, and developers of e-book applications the ability to create and distribute content on a variety of desktop and portable devices. The EPUB standard enables developers to integrate a variety of features that allow readers to navigate and interact with the content of e-books.

Two Exceptional Book Reading Applications for iOS Devices

Without a doubt, Apple has taken full advantage of EPUB, and users have a variety of options when accessing e-books on their iOS devices. This article focuses on two of these options. I've selected these book reading applications, iBooks and Read2Go, not because they are the only two options but because they offer the most accessible features for users who are vision impaired. I describe these two applications as one being free but with costly content while the second option has a nominal cost but offers free content. Both options provide excellent access for those who are low vision as well as for speech and braille users. While it is not the intent of this article to serve as a tutorial for all of the features present within these two options, I'll try to give as comprehensive of an overview as succinctly as possible.

Understanding iBooks

iBooks is Apple's free book reading application present on all of its devices. iBooks enables you to utilize your iTunes account to browse its online bookstore to search and purchase books. Some iBooks content is free, but much of it has costs for acquiring and downloading publications. When a purchase is required, iBooks does allow you to download a sample of the publication that you are considering purchasing.

The iBooks application is organized into four tabs, which are located at the bottom of the application's screen. At the risk of redundancy, I access this and other book reading applications almost exclusively with a braille display, so I use my Braillekey command to move to the bottom of the application to navigate and select my desired tab. A Bookshelf tab allows me to access my downloaded books as well as PDF files, which I often wish to read using the iBooks application. As a side note, PDF access via iBooks is a quite seamless and efficient means of reviewing PDF content when compared to the often cumbersome alternative of using a third party screen reading application on a desktop PC. The other three tabs allow for organizing downloaded iBooks by title, author, or category. At the top of the iBooks screen are three buttons which allow the user to either open the iTunes Store to search for new books, access collections of publications (such as PDF files), or read books. You may either search for publications already downloaded on your device, search for content to download within the iBooks Store, or simply browse books by categories.

Downloading a new book is as simple as locating the desired publication, selecting it (either by double tapping the screen, pressing a routing cursor, or using a joystick on a braille display), selecting the "Buy" button, and waiting for the book to download. Once the book is downloaded, you may access it by selecting the Books option at the top of the iBooks screen.

Once you've selected a book to read, you are presented with the following:

  • "Library" button to access other books loaded on your virtual Bookshelf
  • The current book's Table of Contents
  • An "Appearance" button for adjusting screen brightness, font size, font type, and screen theme (excellent for low vision users)
  • A "Search" button to locate specific text or page numbers
  • An Add Bookmark option for establishing bookmarks throughout the text, which can be synchronized across devices
  • The current page's contents
  • A page selector to navigate to other pages within the book

It is typically recommended that iBooks with text be accessed using Voiceover and a braille display. iBooks also allows for the creation and distribution of multi-media, which are animated books that may or may not be accessible to the Voiceover application

iBooks Authoring Tool

One of the newer features that Apple provides is a free authoring tool for individuals to put their own content into an iBook format. People wishing to do this may download this free application to their Macintosh computer and place text, photos, animation, etc. into an iBook format. Apple describes the process as "dragging and dropping" content into the application, which automatically formats and creates an iBook. I have had limited to no experience using this tool and cannot offer an educated opinion as to whether or not this authoring tool is accessible to vision impaired individuals wishing to create their own iBooks. Apple does allow for aspiring authors or even service providers wishing to make syllabi or class content accessible in iBook format the ability to take advantage of all the built-in access features of Voiceover to release an accessible publication to its users.

There is one important truth to note about this authoring tool. If you take advantage of this functionality to make content available via the iBook format, Apple does own the rights and the creative process necessary to publish this work. Meaning, if you publish anything via the iBook Store and charge users a fee to download and access it, you will need to enter into an agreement with Apple whereby the revenues generated from these purchases are shared between you and Apple.

Read2Go for Reading on the Go

It's been well documented within AccessWorld the profound effect that Benetech's Bookshare.org initiative has had upon the lives of those of us with print disabilities. And, it is a safe assumption to assume that Bookshare.org has evolved the ways its users can access text since its inception over 10 years ago. Bookshare.org has released an app designed for iOS users to access all of its content. One may search for Read2Go within the App Store and purchase this intuitive, yet robust app for $19.99.

Once the app has been installed, you will need to get familiar with its four tabs located at the bottom of the app's screen. Much like iBooks, Read2Go has a Bookshelf tab for downloaded books as well as a Search tab to either search or browse for books on the Bookshare.org website. It also has Settings and Help tabs.

Initially, it is imperative that you access the Settings tab. Within Settings, you have the ability to change formatting, such as font size, the screen's foreground and background colors, and the color of the words and bookmarks. Additionally, you have the option to choose whether or not to show the book's images and if you would like to use Bookshare's built-in speech engine. If you do decide to use the speech engine, you can also choose whether to use its Heather or Ryan Acapela speech engine for listening to text. Most importantly, Settings allows you to sign in and out of your Bookshare.org account. You must sign in before accessing this application's content.

Searching for Bookshare.org publications is as easy as selecting the Search tab and searching by title, author, or ISBN number. You may also browse downloads by Latest, Most Popular, etc. Once you've located a book of interest, you simply select it, and then, you may read about book details or just download the publication. Once the download is complete, you have the option to begin reading the book, or you may choose to do so at a later time.

When you select the Bookshelf tab, you may organize your books by title, author, or by most recently downloaded. An "Edit" button provides you an efficient means of deleting books from your device. When you select a desired book, you are presented with its details and for the option to read the book.

When reading a book, you may access the "Navigation" button to navigate through the text by section, page, or by bookmark (which you may add throughout the book). You may also search for text within a specific portion of the text. It's worth noting that, when the Bookshare.org speech is active, neither the Voiceover speech engine nor the refreshable braille is present when navigating a book. I almost always stick with the Voiceover screen reader and braille display when accessing these publications on my iOS device. In short, Bookshare.org has done a fantastic job of bringing its e-book know-how to the iOS platform. I think highly of the work that their team has done with this application.

iOS Book Reading vs. Proprietary Book Reading

The most common questions that I get asked regarding book reading on iOS devices concern the advantages and disadvantages of reading e-books on iOS devices versus reading them on stand-alone book readers. To be sure, a few adaptive technology manufacturers have done a fantastic job of providing low cost book reading devices that are both portable and intuitive to use. In the interest of transparency, I read books on both of my iOS devices as well as a stand-alone book reader. So, when should you use a specific book reading option, and why? I've listed some of the advantages and disadvantages below.

Advantages of E-Books on iOS Devices
  • Especially when it comes to iPhones, these devices are with us everywhere we go. It's quite liberating to take out an iPhone with either a headset or braille display and read a book whenever we wish to do so.
  • It's equally liberating to have access to newly publicized works at the same moment as our sighted peers using iOS devices. I can still vividly recall having to wait three to six months for a publication to be made available in either audio or braille format while attending high school and college. It is mind boggling that we now have access to the iBooks Store in the same manner that our sighted friends and colleagues do.
  • Downloading books to our iOS devices is effortless compared to the steps required to place books on our stand-alone book readers. Just select the "Download" button, sign in with your iTunes password when necessary, and let your book reading app do the rest!
  • Such an approach to reading fosters a more inclusive means of communication between sighted users of these devices and vision impaired users. Reading can now be a much more interactive process with one's sighted friends, family members, classmates, and instructors when iOS book reading is in the mix.
The Disadvantages of Book Reading on iOS Devices
  • First, these iOS devices do not come close to rivaling the battery life on stand-alone book readers. I can use my stand-alone book reader for a good 30 hours before needing to recharge it. I need to recharge my iPhone at least four or five times to achieve the same result when reading books on this device.
  • Stand-alone book readers are simply more intuitive. The two afore-mentioned apps for iOS are quite accessible and usable, but the hardware buttons on these stand-alone book readers coupled with decades of book reading know-how their manufacturers possess make for a more intuitive book reading experience when using a stand-alone book reader.
  • And finally, at this stage, there is not an iOS app to access the ever-growing BARD website, which the National Library Service for the Blind and Visually Impaired has made available to us. So, many of us use this service with great ease when using a stand-alone book reader.

Conclusion

I do not prefer one method of book reading over the other. I simply base my book reading needs and wants based on my current situation, and so should you. This article is intended to give you an overview of the current scope of searching for, downloading, and reading books on your iOS device, and I trust that it has given you a bit of perspective as you incorporate iOS book reading into your iOS consumer experiences. The final article in this series will be dedicated to notetaking, word processing, and file sharing on iOS devices.

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Copyright © 2012 American Foundation for the Blind. All rights reserved. AccessWorld is a trademark of the American Foundation for the Blind.

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