George Kerscher: A Pioneer in Digital Talking Books Still Forging Ahead
"Necessity is the mother of invention," the adage goes, and it applies well to the personal history of George Kerscher, named 1998 Innovator of the Year by U.S. News and World Report. Kerscher still recalls the thrill of his first Talking Book. While listening to the recorded text of Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, he followed along in the printed text. He was 28, had just been declared legally blind, and says that it was his most enjoyable read in years!
"I began thinking about the synchronization of text and audio," Kerscher says, and carried the technique into his classrooms as a high school literature teacher. The kids loved it, too. "Many of them probably had undiagnosed learning disabilities," he reflects today, and responded well to the concept of listening and reading simultaneously. His use of recorded books enabled him to continue teaching as his ability to see the printed page diminished. If adaptive technology had existed in the early 1980s as we know it today, Kerscher believes he probably would have continued teaching. As it was, however, he threw away his driver's license, reached a point where he could not see students' handwriting, and grew weary of creative solutions to do his job.
Kerscher discovered that he had an aptitude for computers and enrolled in a master's program in computer science at the University of Montana. There was no Americans with Disabilities Act in 1985, and thus no laws to protect him from what he calls "meeting the prejudice wall." His agreement with the computer department was that if he received straight As in prerequisite courses and passed the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), he would be accepted into the master's program. He earned the As but then was given a reader for the GRE who was unfamiliar with the material. Faced with less than favorable odds, he skipped the English portion of the exam, focusing on areas that would demonstrate his qualification for the graduate program, and followed up with a letter "with perfect grammar, spelling, and punctuation" with the comment that his English degree should serve as proof of his qualification in that area. Another creative solution was successful, and he was in.
Using live readers and recorded books for his coursework was laborious at best, and when Kerscher met the author of a book on MS-DOS in 1985, it occurred to him to ask if the electronic files were available. That idea led to his writing to 15 publishers requesting files. A few responded with floppy disks that were, in his words, "complete garbage."
"I threw them in a drawer," Kerscher says," and then one day took them out again. Comparing the garbage on the screen with the print book on my CCTV, I began writing a program. It was like working out a puzzle. The program took three weeks to write, 10 seconds to run, and I was reading a book with my screen reader for the very first time."
Word spread throughout the blind community of Kerscher's breakthrough, and Computerized Books for the Blind (CBFB), a nonprofit organization for the distribution of books in ASCII files on floppy disks, was born. Microsoft Press heard what he was doing and released copyright permission. The press had been receiving requests from blind people around the world for books in electronic files, and finally there was a solution. Other publishers released permission, as well. With support from the University of Montana's Institute on Disability, Kerscher registered users for a one-time $25 fee and then distributed books free of charge. In the three years from 1988 to 1991, Computerized Books for the Blind produced over 750 titles, distributing them to over 1,200 blind computer users around the world.
The Next Chapter
In 1991, Kerscher went to work for Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB and D), the Princeton, New Jersey, nonprofit organization distributing recordings of educational materials to blind and dyslexic consumers since 1948. As RFB and D's research and development director, he focused on the organization's new e-text project, producing books on floppy disks with some navigational capabilities. By 1995, he was named Senior Officer of Accessible Information, not only consulting on accessible information issues to all RFB and D departments, but also collaborating with others around the world to develop standards for book delivery in digital formats.
Driving Miss DAISY
Organizations serving the blind in Sweden, Japan, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere had begun developing systems for delivering digital books to blind readers. To develop a single set of standards designed for blind users worldwide, the Digital Audio-based Information System (DAISY) Consortium was formed in 1995. In 1996, at the DAISY meeting in Toronto, Kerscher demonstrated the DAISY technology developed at RFB and D, incorporating the perspectives of the Web Accessibility Initiative guidelines and Synchronized Media Integration Language (SMIL). The consortium agreed that one single set of standards would be adopted worldwide, and a year later, with the blessing of RFB and D, George Kerscher was hired as DAISY's project manager.
Throughout history, many inventions and innovations initially perceived as useful to people with disabilities have found their way into the mainstream marketplace, and the same is true for electronic books. Since the American Foundation for the Blind began recording books for blind consumers since the 1930s, book lovers of all abilities have more recently come to love the pleasure of a book read aloud on car stereos and personal tape players everywhere. Similarly, as LCD screens on notebook and laptop computers improved in resolution and personal data assistants became more widespread, the commercial interest in producing books for the general population that could be read electronically soared.
"The move from tree books to e-books is inevitable," Kerscher says. But it wasn't a simple matter of technology. Authors, publishers, and book sellers are concerned with rights and the potential for lost revenue. Blind and dyslexic consumers are concerned about rights and the loss of access to reading material. It became clear to Kerscher and others that developers of books for blind readers needed to become involved with the development of commercial e-book standards to protect the level of equality blind computer users have come to enjoy in recent decades.
At the first general meeting of the Open E-books Forum (OEBF) in New York City in May 2000, George Kerscher was unanimously elected chairperson of the OEBF Board. This position holds tremendous promise for access by blind users to the next generation of digitally delivered books. Comprised of hardware and software developers, publishers, authors, and organizations interested in electronic books, the Open E-books Forum is dedicated to establishing common specifications for all e-book materials once production is in full swing. Kerscher, in other words, now has feet firmly planted in both the development of standards for digital information designed specifically for blind readers as well as those for mainstream production. (For more detail on the DAISY Consortium, see "A New Look for the Book" in this issue.)
So Where Are the Books?
The end product might take a variety of forms, both hardware and software, but real books produced according to the DAISY standard, also called Digital Talking Books, have been distributed in Sweden and Japan for some time, and will soon be available in the United States. RFB and D has been converting thousands of its titles from cassette to digital format and will begin shipping them in 2002. Although most will be audio only—each title housed on a single compact disc with bookmark and search capabilities—Kerscher says that some will have full text, as well. For the past year, test sites around the country, mostly junior high and high schools, have been working with Digital Talking Books, or DAISY-capable books, and plans are under way for converting RFB and D's 31 recording studios, each with five to eight recording booths, to record materials in a digital format. Players are already available from a variety of sources (see "Who Are the Players:Reviews of Hardware and Software Digital Talking Book Players," in this issue).
Although NLS has also been heavily involved in establishing standards and planning for Digital Talking Book production, the process will take much longer. NLS distributes not only books but also players (whether hardware or software) for its materials free of charge, and designing a player that is user-friendly to all patrons is no small feat. The hope, explains Michael Moodie of NLS, is to bypass the compact disc technology altogether and ultimately produce books in a flash memory format, possibly similar to the memory sticks now available for digital cameras and other electronic devices. Whatever form the NLS Digital Talking Books materials ultimately take, the prediction at this point is approximately five years down the road for mass distribution of titles and players. A collaborative effort between Microsoft and HumanWare was announced in the fall of 2000 to render the BrailleNote, a Windows CE-based notetaker, compatible with Microsoft Reader, enabling blind consumers to load commercially produced mainstream E-books and read them through synthesized speech and braille. At this point, however, no product has been shown.
Where in the World is George Kerscher?
The overall process of keeping the interests of blind and other disabled consumers "on the same page" with commercial producers is enormously complex, but George Kerscher and other blindness leaders are exercising serious vigilance. Consider, for instance, George Kerscher's travel schedule for March. March 16-18, he was in Los Angeles for meetings with the DAISY Consortium. On March 19, he hopped a plane to Paris, France, for three days of meetings with the Open E-book Forum membership, and then back to Los Angeles to make a March 23 DAISY presentation at the CSUN (California State University, Northridge) conference, "Technology and People with Disabilities." Blind computer users who remember the trauma caused in workplaces and educational settings when DOS-based, blind-friendly applications were replaced by the initially bewildering graphical user interface regime will appreciate the importance of merging the issues of blind accessibility with commercial developments. This time, a laudable effort is being made on all fronts—and George Kerscher, with ties to the DAISY Consortium, Web Accessibility Initiative, Open E-book Forum, and elsewhere, is representing those issues at every foreseeable roadblock. To him, after all, it's far more than a job. He clearly remembers the thrill of that first Talking Book and later, the thrill of reading a book with his screen reader navigating complex material independently, randomly in the same luxurious mode print readers have long taken for granted. The promise of e-books is that eventually all blind children and adults will come to take that freedom of text navigation for granted, too.
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