How Do I Read Thee? A Librarian Expands the Ways
If you are blind or have low vision, you are undoubtedly familiar with the litany of questions, often clichéd queries, that are proffered by strangers who are not familiar with visual impairments. Children ask the best ones: "How do you drive?" "How do you find your food?" And the one that presents a delicious teaching moment: "How do you read?" Let me count the ways!
A few decades ago, there was a simple answer to the last question. People who were blind could read books in braille, books in large print, and books recorded on long-playing records by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS). Adding audiocassettes to the mix was a piece of heaven for bibliophiles. Technology began to increase the options significantly in the late 1980s, and now, for people who are sighted and those who are visually impaired, the snowball of electronic books is rolling down the hill at a speed that is more rapid than any reader can match.
In other issues of AccessWorld, we have written about some of the wonderful and varied ways that people who are blind or have low vision can now gain access to books. Online sites such as Bookshare.org and NLS's Web-Braille offer thousands of books to be downloaded and read either on a personal computer (PC) or a portable notetaker. (At this moment, for instance, I count 44 books and 6 magazines for reading in braille or through synthesized speech that are waiting in my own braille notetaker.) Hardware and software players for listening to DAISY-format e-books are now available from a variety of companies. Sighted people are downloading e-books into handheld personal digital assistants (PDAs) and cell phones. A growing number of mainstream libraries are offering titles in various electronic formats. In other words, whereas people who do not read print have options for reading books electronically, people who do read print have many more.
Serving Up New Options
Lori Bell, director of the Mid-Illinois Talking Book Center (MITBC) in East Peoria and Quincy, Illinois, a subregional library within the NLS network of cooperating libraries that is operated by the Alliance Library System, has spearheaded a series of projects that are designed to put new and emerging reading formats into the hands of patrons who are blind or have low vision. "Talking Books are my business," Bell explained, "and I love Talking Books. I'm not trying to replace them. But I'm a librarian, and my job is to serve library patrons. No matter what library I'm in, I'd be looking at new technology and how it serves readers."
There have been five projects to date (the fifth began in July 2004), and each has been an exploration of formats and devices that are used for reading digital Talking Books. The first project, the eAudio study, which ran from January through June 2003 and included 40 MITBC patrons, used Audible.com books that were loaded onto Audible's proprietary Otis players. Audible.com is a commercial service that offers books and other materials to its customers in an electronic format that can be either played on a PC or downloaded into the Otis for portability. In this study, a $2,000 donation was used to purchase eight Otis players and 48 digital audio books from Audible.com. Players were mailed, loaded with one book each, to patrons for a period of two weeks at a time. Each package included instructions in large print and a set of earbuds. The Otis player resembles a pager in shape and size and has buttons, a liquid-crystal display (LCD), and a jack for connecting the earbuds, other headphones, or an external speaker. The Audible.com files are commercial recordings of human voices. The books are narrated by professionals, in much the same manner as the Talking Books that are provided through the NLS library. (Many participants commented that they preferred the narration of NLS Talking Books to the commercial, more "expressive" recordings from Audible.com.)
Although the participants responded favorably to the quality and portability of this format, the fact that the players are not user-friendly to people without vision was clear. The participants commented that the buttons were too small and that audible clues were needed to indicate a button's performance, and many missed the variable-speed control that is available on NLS Talking Book players. (Many also expressed annoyance with the earbuds, although this is clearly the most easily remedied complaint, since other headsets could be used.)
The second project, called the Lobe Library Project, expanded the exploration of Otis players and Audible.com books to include library patrons in five states (Illinois, Hawaii, Mississippi, Montana, and New Jersey). The Lobe Library Project ran for one year, from July 1, 2003 to June 30, 2004; a final report will issued later in the year.
Upward and Onward
From the single-format studies that explored the Audible.com files, MITBC moved on to examining seven digital talking book players in its third project. Conducted by Tom Peters, a consultant from TAP Information Services, the study explored seven products—including those that Peters described as "next-generation" Talking Book players (the Victor Classic and Plextor), upgraded personal compact disk (CD) players (Victor Reader Vibe, Telex Scholar, and SoulPlayer), and two devices that are "dependent on the mothership PC for downloads"—the Book Port and BookCourier. (The latter two devices are reviewed elsewhere in this issue of AccessWorld.) In a report available online, Peters discussed the pros and cons of these devices from the vantage point of usability by persons who are unable to read print and concluded, as has AccessWorld, that although the perfect device has by no means been created, people who are blind or have low vision may well want to avail themselves of such products.
"We don't know what the e-book of the future will look like," Peters said. "Maybe we won't even call it a book. . . . The first cars were called 'horseless carriages' because carriages were what was known. Eventually, we called them something else. [In the same way] books of the future may not be called books or look like any that we know today."
Although he is sighted, Peters is a longtime proponent of e-books, saying that he always has his handheld PDA with him for a quick read of a beloved John Milton poem or a short dip into the New York Times Book Review section. His own appreciation for carrying unlimited reading in a handheld PDA, Peters said, has led him to believe that people who are blind, have low vision, or have physical disabilities are an underserved readership.
Underwhelmed by the OverDrive Project
Meanwhile, as the seven players were being evaluated, yet another electronic format was advanced in the beta-test queue by Bell and MITBC in the OverDrive and Adobe Book project, MITBC's fourth project. OverDrive, a Cleveland-based company that sells e-book systems to mainstream libraries, installed the same software on the MITBC system for beta testers (NLS patrons from around the country) to explore. With the circulation software donated by OverDrive and a small but eclectic collection of Adobe-based books, the project allows a participant with a library card number and a PIN to "check out" a book from the library, downloading it to his or her PC, and enjoy it for the 14-day borrowing period. When the two-week period has elapsed, the OverDrive software removes the book, "returning it to the shelf," so it can be lent to someone else. Although the primary incentive for all these projects is to provide patrons with an opportunity to explore a variety of e-book formats, the OverDrive-Adobe project has received mixed reviews at best. (See "Accessing Adobe PDFs" for information on how Adobe-based books can be read.)
Initially, the PDF files were accompanied by a Microsoft text-to-speech engine, which evoked a resounding thumbs-down from all the beta testers. Accustomed to the comparative clarity and ease of use provided by synthesizers that are shipped with screen readers, such as JAWS for Windows and Window-Eyes, the beta testers found the Microsoft voice sluggish and aggravating. Once they began to turn off the read-aloud function in Adobe and to use their personal screen readers for reading and navigation, however, their judgments became more favorable. Still, many of the users I spoke with for this article said that they had read only one or a portion of one book with the software.
Bryan McMurray, supervisor of sensory and testing accommodations in the office that provides services to students with disabilities at the University of Illinois, is one beta tester who has persevered. "It took some time figuring it out," he explained, "but I've read a couple of books so far. My job is to provide the best accommodations to our students, some of them blind or visually impaired, and electronic formats are going to be an absolutely essential part of that." Yet, even though McMurray managed to enjoy a few Adobe books by reading them with Window-Eyes, he believes that what students— and other people who are blind—need most is a set of solutions that offer the same portability that print readers take for granted. "Our students get all their books and handouts scanned and proofread for reading electronically," he said, "but they are always tied to that computer. They can't go read in a snack bar or lie in the grass somewhere like their sighted peers can."
Barry Levine of Homer Glen, Illinois, expressed similar sentiments. "This particular project is really important," he said, "because blind people need to take advantage of all the forms of access that are out there. Reading with Adobe wasn't bad. Eventually, I figured out how to navigate the book like other files, but it wouldn't be my first choice." A longtime proponent of all libraries (president of his local library's board of trustees and Illinois's 2001 Library Trustee of the Year head the list of his numerous accolades and library affiliations), Levine joined the advisory committee for Bell's next project, which may well be the most energizing and informative of them all.
Pulling It All Together
The fifth project, a group project proposed by the MITBC, OverDrive, and TAP Information Services, was named the winner of the 2004 Sirsi Leader in Library Technology Grant, awarded by the American Library Association for creative and groundbreaking use of technology to deliver library services. Bell and the MITBC launched its MIDTB (pronounced "my D T B," for the Mid-Illinois Digital Talking Book Project) in July 2004. The project's goal is to put as many formats of audio digital books and ways of listening to them as possible into the hands of readers who are blind or have low vision and to publicize the results. OverDrive is planning to produce books in Windows Media, which are expected to be much friendlier to screen readers than the Adobe files have been, but this is only the beginning of the reading list. If you have wondered about audio books in DAISY, Windows Media, Adobe, MP3, or Mobipocket electronic formats, as well as the array of devices and programs for hearing them, here is your opportunity to find out more and provide some valuable input (see For More Information at the end of this article). This project will run from July 1, 2004, to June 30, 2005, and is being coordinated by Tom Peters.
Input about Access
Despite the abundant praise from borrowers of talking books who have participated in these projects, Bell humbly insisted that the work is the result of many—her director, Sharon Ruda; grant writer Tom Peters; and several others who have provided ongoing input.
"Lori's vision," commented Kelly Pierce, a disability-rights specialist for the Cook County State's Attorney's Office and an NLS patron, "is to understand that access is on the verge of change. . . . With short-form information services, blind people lagged behind the general public. Now, with long-form information, we have a chance to get involved, [to] have input about access, from the beginning."
Pierce's point is well taken. In the past 25 years, the choices for news information—which Pierce refers to as "short-form information"—that are available to people who are unable to read print have gone from local radio stations and television news on three networks to news-laden National Public Radio (NPR) stations in most cities, widespread AM talk radio, a plethora of informational cable and satellite television channels, countless daily newspapers on the Internet, and more. "There has been a real transformation in our access to short-form information," Pierce noted. "And [the MITBC projects] are giving us an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of the next transformation."
Bell has always pursued technology, she said, in every library she has worked—citing as an example her effort as a hospital librarian to bring reference materials directly to the medical staff via their handheld PDA's. Bell sees it as her obligation as a librarian, although ironically, she has never read a book on a PDA and prefers a good old-fashioned hardcover print book. Some of her greatest fans among users of Talking Books and beta testers reported similar personal leanings.
Pierce, for example, said that although he has enjoyed participating in the Lobe Library Project and listening to a book produced by Audible.com on the Otis player, his preferred medium is the NLS four-track Talking Book. Levine, on the other hand, said that he wants to read a book any way he can—and he does. If a book is on CD from the public library, on four-track half-speed audiocassette from NLS, in HTML from Bookshare.org, or available some other way, that's how he wants to read it.
Admitting some annoyance that NLS will not be offering a digital solution until 2008, Levine stated that people who are blind need to know more about commercial choices that are evolving. "We'll never be able to read the printed word," he noted, "but now there's the electronic word—and we can access it."
And that reality is the essence that seems to be driving Bell and other members of the project team—sharing words in a multitude of venues and spreading the word about the effort. "Part of our work with Talking Books is outreach," Bell said, "and these projects help make people learn about our services." What may be even better than that, commercial entities are recognizing that people with disabilities are a viable, profitable market. "The folks at Audible.com or OverDrive never thought much about people who are blind or can't read print," Bell stated, "but now, they're starting to think about visually impaired people as a market and know that some people are trying these formats and then going online to buy their own Adobe books or subscribe to Audible.com."
Presumably, as such awareness grows, so may the attention paid to the needs of customers who use screen readers or require audible indicators when buttons are pushed. Perhaps one day, the question children will ask will not be "How do you read?" but "What do you like to read?"
For More Information
To read the final report of the eAudio project, go to the web site <http://www.mitbc.org/eaudiofinal.doc>. To read the Project Hal final evaluation of digital audio players, go to the web site <www.tapinformation.com> and click on Documents.
For information on participating in the MIDTB project, investigating multiple formats and players, e-mail Tom Peters at <email@example.com> or Lori Bell at <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
Accessing Adobe PDFs
If the proper steps are taken, documents in Adobe PDF format can be accessible to individuals using screen-review software. The first step is to obtain the most current versions of both your screen-review software and Adobe Reader. Users of screen-review software will want to have at least JAWS 5.0 (the March 2004 update) or Window-Eyes 4.5. The latest versions of these software applications add a great deal of support for proper reading of PDF documents. These screen readers work best with Adobe Reader version 6.01, the latest version of Adobe's PDF reader. This application can be downloaded for free from <access.adobe.com>. When downloading, users will want to select the full version for Windows.
The second step, and the step that is more difficult for the end user to control, is to ensure that PDF documents are created properly. PDF documents that are not created properly will cause significant problems for assistive technology such as screen readers. If, for example, the author of a PDF document simply includes an image of text instead of the actual text in the document, screen review software will be unable to read this document. The latest versions of tools used to create PDF documents, such as Adobe Acrobat Professional, include features that help authors create accessible content. Authors can also find guidelines for creating accessible content at <access.adobe.com>.
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