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Surpassing Gutenberg--Access to Published Information for Blind Readers

Surpassing Gutenberg--An AFB White Paper

A Historic Opportunity
in Access to Published Information
for Blind Readers

By Janina Sajka & George Kerscher

Executive Summary

We examine some surprising reasons to explain why electronic book publishing will become a versatile medium comprising 10% of all consumer book sales in the U.S. by 2005, estimated by Anderson Consulting at $2.3 billion. The Association of American Publishers (AAP) and the Open Electronic Book Forum (OEBF) both pin this expectation on open standards—any book, anytime, anywhere, for anyone. Electronic books will succeed, we argue, in part because they provide communicative opportunities not available in traditional, static print media. But, they will also succeed because of developments in technology for blind readers which will benefit all readers regardless of ability or disability. As evidence we offer, among other points, Microsoft Corporation's licensing of technology developed to benefit blind people for use in Microsoft Reader and mainstream publishing applications. We demonstrate, further, that technology transfer from disability to mainstream use has solid historic precedent.

Copyright ? 2000 by Janina Sajka, George Kerscher
and the American Foundation for the Blind.

Access to information is profoundly critical in determining a person's quality of life. What sort of life is it when a person cannot read? A person simply cannot expect a rich and rewarding life without the ability to read and without access to published materials ranging from menus and signage to correspondence, financial and legal documents as well as to great and small works of literature, science, philosophy, religion, and the arts. So, while a blind individual may be highly educated and lettered, he or she is virtually illiterate if unable to access published information.

It is no surprise, therefore, that agencies for the blind have historically sought better means for providing information for their constituents. Many, if not most historic achievements remembered today as milestones in blind people's history are, in fact, achievements that significantly enhanced access to information. These include the invention of braille, the standardization of braille symbology, and the talking book,1 among others.

Today, a monumental change in the lives of blind people is again on the horizon. Though little understood even among blindness professionals as of this writing, the emergence of electronic books (e-books) is of historic proportion nonetheless. Electronic books promise to make published material accessible to blind readers at the time of publication to all readers. They will not require a separate editorial and distribution channel, because the same electronic book will be usable by blind and sighted readers alike. The next year will determine whether this opportunity becomes reality now, or whether the realization of this technological opportunity will be deferred to some other decade.

A Historical Perspective

As the 15th century printing press redefined knowledge and revolutionized learning forever, so this opportunity promises to change forever the lives of blind and sighted readers alike in ways we can yet only dimly foresee. Can we conceive of blind people going to Barnes & Noble or B. Dalton to buy their books? Can we imagine that a sighted colleague, friend, or family member would say to the blind reader, "Here, let me give you this book. It's really wonderful and you should read it!" No one does this today without recourse to a specialty publisher of books in a specially adapted medium. Where all literature was once the province of a privileged social class, the printing press gave us mass learning, mass literacy, mass marketing, and mass communications. Five hundred years later, we stand on the threshold of including blind people at last, in this historic literacy revolution. For blind people, such an achievement would certainly rival braille itself in historic significance.

This monumental opportunity is not the result of the efforts of the blind community alone. Rather, it arises from the confluence of several independent efforts from academia, from computer science, from publishing, as well as from the blind community. Each of these several independent efforts is well on the road toward useful results for its individual constituencies. The electronic book from the blind community, called the "Digital Talking Book," will profoundly simplify the reader's ability to navigate through the book's contents. It will provide full text that can be automatically displayed in braille or in large print fonts. And, it will preserve the feature most blind readers particularly cherish in traditional talking books—audio recordings of superb narrators reading the text aloud. But we who are building the digital talking book are no longer creating our product apart from those who are creating new book technologies for the mass market. We have discovered one another. And, in our growing awareness of the value each of us brings to the table, we have discovered a startling new vision. We have begun to understand that the confluence of our individual efforts can produce a single product—a single electronic book format—usable by, and attractive to all readers, whatever their preferred reading medium.

It is not that the traditional book is dying. Far too many readers love printed books too much for the traditional book to disappear from the scene. Rather, it is that electronic media are available to convey information and stimulate the human spirit in ways the static page cannot. Mainstream technologists dream of pages that come to life and transform before the reader's eyes. Certainly such multimedia illustrations would be helpful in subjects requiring complex illustration, such as the sciences. Technologists reason, "Why be limited to static pictures and charts when we have the technology at hand to introduce multimedia into our illustrations?" Consider further that over 400 pounds and 2,000,000 pages of printed text can be distributed on a one-ounce DVD, and you will understand why seven dental schools will require course materials on DVD this coming autumn 2 ("Bookbag of the Future," 2000).

Blind readers share two needs with all readers which indicate that their needs can and will be met through standardized electronic books:

  • Text will remain a central element in electronic books. Moreover, this text will be stored in the computer with the kinds of codes that can be used for searching and indexing, as opposed to picture images of words.
  • Structural elements of a book's contents will be tagged with codes that faithfully map the book's actual intellectual structure: chapters, sections, footnotes, and sidebars.

Curiously, the power of structural navigation has yet to persuade many mainstream electronic book technologists. Perhaps because they're still focused on the more dazzling display opportunities available in e-book technology. This is perhaps understandable given that e-book technology is still very new, and its commercial viability is yet to be fully demonstrated. An understanding of how content is structured, however, is a key component of effective reading strategies, so we can expect that the electronic book will soon support more than just "next page" and "previous page" navigation. It would be shortsighted indeed to expect the electronic book to be constrained by the inherent limitations of traditional books, where indexes and tables of contents only presaged hyperlinks, for example.

Better Information Access for Everyone

It is accurate to say that we have some good news for blind readers and some even better news. The good news is the NISO/DAISY digital talking book. It will revolutionize the experience of reading for the blind user, and will especially revolutionize the experience of study. The digital talking book is itself the result of a convergence of the efforts of two separate teams known now as the 3 NISO team and the DAISY team. Both teams have taken great care to ensure that the specifications they produce which define the digital talking book are fully viable independent of any particular medium. NISO/DAISY encoded content can, therefore, be delivered on CD-ROM for reading in specially designed players; over the Internet for reading in specially designed browsers or with popular browsers such as Netscape, Internet Explorer, and Lynx; or even over a touch-tone telephone. Moreover, NISO/DAISY encoded content can be read and navigated structurally. This means that a reader can skim through text by advancing and retreating by chapter, section, and/or sub-section. Readers of this document are strongly encouraged to experience for themselves the ease of navigation and the joy of reading a DAISY book on a DAISY player. The significance of structural navigation is far easier to understand through experience than through abstract description. Therefore, suffice it to say that it provides blind persons with the ability to read very much as sighted persons read.

Good as this news is for blind readers, it pales when we consider that the NISO/DAISY protocol may be incorporated into the Open Electronic Book Forum (OEBF) protocol. Spearheaded barely one year ago by a host of companies interested in electronic publishing and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), OEBF is the electronic publishing industry's effort to define a cross-platform standard for electronic files. OEBF is a membership organization incorporated in the U.S. as a 501(c)6 non-profit. Member organizations include traditional media publishers, electronic publishers, hardware manufacturers that produce devices for reading electronic books, software developers, and various other organizations and individuals including disability organizations and access technology providers. The OEBF's purpose is to create and establish standards for, and to promote, electronic book technology. OEBF books produced by any publisher will be readable on any manufacturer's OEBF compliant device. Such cross-platform compatibility is correctly understood to be critical to the industry's success. As with the voice telephone industry in the early 1900s, 4 it is untenable to require a different proprietary device in order to read each individual publisher's content. Incorporating NISO/DAISY within the next iteration of OEBF standards would simply mean that any and all books published to OEBF specifications would be accessible to blind people whether or not the publisher actually considered accessibility during the production process. Recognizing a serious and damaging potential for conflict in standards on the one hand, and a historic opportunity to serve blind people's access needs through the general marketplace rather than through specialty publishing on the other, NISO and DAISY group members continue to participate in OEBF. There is a very strong probability of success because of this participation as evidenced by the willingness of OEBF members to incorporate the needs of blind readers into OEBF specifications.

Certainly, very important issues, such as copyright enforcement (known in electronic book parlance as "Digital Rights Management (DRM)"), have yet to be resolved for electronic book technology. Still, various indications suggest that electronic books can now succeed in the general marketplace, and especially in the educational marketplace. At the library of the University of Texas at Austin, their more than 6,000 electronic texts are checked out 30 times more frequently than newly acquired books in traditional hardbound or softbound media 5 ("Racing to Convert Books to Bytes," 1999). Various U.S. states' education departments, such as Maryland's, are looking to electronic books to reduce costs and to facilitate enhanced learning opportunities. Much is to be gained by including blind people's requirements in OEBF standards. The benefits will accrue to blind and sighted readers alike: blind people gain by having access to countless more texts than would ever be produced by specialty publishers, and titles are available at the same time as sighted readers gain access, while sighted readers gain from the blind community's understanding of the importance of structural access—an understanding just now dawning within OEBF.

Aren't Braille and Traditional Talking Books Enough?

People with print disabilities have historically been disenfranchised from the mainstream of learning and employment because of a lack of access to published information. While braille and Talking Books are being created, producers battle constantly to keep up with the growing number of print books published each year. Only approximately 10% of texts published today are ever made available in braille or as Talking Books and they're only available months after the book is first published for the sighted reader. Furthermore, braille on paper and Talking Books on audiocassettes cannot be used as flexibly as print books. Now, with the emergence of electronic books for the general population, we have a tremendous opportunity to automatically give blind readers access to the new age of electronic books with a level of usability never before experienced by blind readers.

A Legal Mandate for Access

From the publishing perspective the blind and print-disabled market is too small to receive much attention on its own. Yet, an increasing body of law and regulation in the U.S. (and abroad) is requiring publishers to produce accessible materials. These include laws in Texas and California, among other states, requiring all textbooks and curricular materials to be accessible. Provisions in the regulations promulgated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) implementing Sec. 255 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and in those from the Access Board implementing Sec. 508 of the amended Rehabilitation Act of 1973 will require accessible publications for the Federal and telecommunications markets in the U.S.

It is preferable, in fact, that blind individuals remain a small segment of the market for electronic books. If electronic books are properly designed, all readers will benefit, but blind readers will benefit especially because many more titles will be available far sooner than ever before because they will be produced for a larger market than blind people could ever constitute on their own.

As we have frequently pointed out in our various advocacy efforts, the product that is universally designed meets the needs of the mainstream population better. The general population benefits, in other words, when the needs of blind readers are incorporated into publishing standards. For example, people driving to work could choose to listen to an electronic book presented through spoken word audio during their commute. They could switch to a visual presentation at other times. It may prove that more and more people will choose electronic books that are versatile and allow alternative access methods. In short, it is in the best interest of publishing to embrace universal design in the industry. And, with blind people's needs incorporated into the standard, it is in blind people's best interest as well.

Work on Digital Talking Books

A committee of the United States-based National Information Standards Organization (NISO), in conjunction with the internationally known DAISY Consortium, is working on a specification for Digital Talking Books. This will serve as the next generation of information technology for persons who are blind and print-disabled. This specification is written in XML and supports capture of the elements of structure in a book to facilitate navigation. The specification goes on to define how the textual information can be synchronized with digitally recorded human speech through Synchronized Multimedia Integration Language (SMIL), a recommendation of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The specification identifies six classes of books that have varying amounts of text mixed with audio. Most significantly, one class of book contains only text, with no recorded human speech. Access to the information in this kind of digital talking book would be through synthetic speech, refreshable braille, or dynamically generated large print.

The Digital Audio-based Information SYstem Consortium, The DAISY Consortium, is an international effort to define specifications for, and begin the production of, digital talking books. Older than the U.S. Library of Congress' National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS/BPH) spearheaded NISO committee, DAISY's specifications and the NISO specifications are now virtually identical despite the fact that they were produced by different groups, and will be precisely identical by year's end because the NISO and DAISY teams appreciate the value of having a single, universal standard. Blindness agencies which are active members of the DAISY Consortium and will begin producing digital talking books in DAISY format include Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D), American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), American Printing House for the Blind (APH), Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB), and the U.K. Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB), to name just a few. DAISY digital talking books are expected on the market during this calendar year.

Open Electronic Book Forum

On September 21, 1999, the Open Electronic Book Forum (OEBF) announced its 1.0 specification as a formal recommendation (standard) for electronic books. There was outstanding cooperation with the disabled community in the OEBF specification process, and this XML implementation is a great first step toward a truly universally designed specification. There is already a 60% correspondence between the OEBF 1.0 specification and the specifications defined in the NISO/DAISY process, despite the fact that no formal effort has yet been undertaken to synchronize these specifications.

A Test of Viability

In a project facilitated by the American Association of Publishers (AAP), the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS/BPH) is currently concluding a pilot project to test the viability of converting OEBF 1.0 texts into NISO/Daisy format. NLS/BPH is performing these conversions by hand since, understandably, no computer-based tools for such conversions yet exist. Of course, should the NISO/DAISY specification be folded into a new OEBF standard what is being called OEBF 2.0—no such conversion would be necessary. Interestingly, NLS/BPH reports that the conversion process is no more difficult than expected. While the texts NLS/BPH has converted contain complicated structural elements such as tables and charts, NLS/BPH would, in retrospect, have preferred to test with even more complex texts.

The AAP has teamed with Anderson Consulting to evaluate the market for e-books and to define the basis of its publisher members entry into e-book publishing. In a glowing study entitled "Reading in the New Millennium, A Bright Future for e-book Publishing" Anderson Consulting projects the e-book market at $2.3 billion by 2005--10% of the estimated $21.9 Billion total consumer book market in 2005. This study also highlights the importance of open standards to the success of electronic publishing because "it's easy for consumers: any book, any source, any device."

Following in a tradition at least as old as the typewriter (which was invented to enable a blind countess to write legibly), 6 Microsoft Corporation has licensed technology that will add support for the NISO/DAISY protocols to Microsoft Reader, its electronic book viewing software. Microsoft's press release which announced this acquisition Microsoft Licenses Technology to Enable Synchronized Audio For e-books on Microsoft Reader, also supports the benefits of convergence in e-book technologies and commits financial support to the DAISY Consortium:

"The enhanced capabilities of Microsoft Reader will open the door to a wide range of advantages for book lovers, including greater flexibility to enjoy books and more value in learning from books by hearing words as well as seeing them on screen. 'Sometimes, the only thing better than reading a good book is to have someone read it to you out loud,' said Dick Brass, vice president of technology development at Microsoft. 'With this innovative technology, Microsoft Reader will offer the book lover yet another way to enjoy a great title, with lots of flexibility and control. For the vision- and print-impaired, it can also open up whole worlds of reading that were not readily available before.'"

In licensing NISO/DAISY technology developed by Labyrinten Data of Falk?ping, Sweden, and isSound of Ewing, N.J., Microsoft was careful to insure that publisher tools would also be available:

"As part of the licensing agreement, isSound and Labyrinten will also create enhanced versions of their LpStudio/PLUS toolkit to support production of mixed media materials for Microsoft Reader."

"In support of efforts to establish an international standard for the production, exchange and use of the next generation of audio books, Microsoft, through its relationship with isSound and Labyrinten, will donate a portion of revenues generated through this licensing deal to The DAISY Consortium..."

E-book Japan Initiative

A Japanese electronic publishing group consisting of publishers, printing industry representatives, and bookstores launched a pilot project of multimedia electronic books supported by the Ministries of Trade and Industry of Japan. The pilot project aims to establish standards for electronic book publishing that will accommodate versatile scripts of Japanese and other languages. The pilot will be finished this year. The Japanese e-book specification is also based on XML and is being developed to meet the requirements of various user groups including people with disabilities. The pilot project will produce 5,000 titles available at participating bookstores. Dedicated handheld viewers, which do not have sound output at the moment, are being distributed among participating consumers.

Converging Standards at OEBF

The OEBF has talked about the next specification that will be produced. There is general recognition within OEBF that the current 1.0 specification is actually adequate only for conversion of legacy documents (such as PDF files). As publishers begin to author their data with both electronic books and print books in mind, their markup requirements will need to be met by a more sophisticated markup scheme. The OEBF 2.0 specification, e-book Japan, the specifications from AAP, and the NISO/DAISY specifications can and should meld into a single universal design specification for electronic books.

Action Recommendations

Given the historic opportunity now before us, all stakeholders should:

  • Adopt no less a goal than the complete redefinition of the thing we know as a "book" on behalf of readers everywhere (including blind readers) through a convergence of NISO/DAISY, AAP, and OEBF standards;
  • Consciously disabuse ourselves of the historic notion that regards a printed publication as the true source document and all other media as variants. In truth, the true source already is, and must remain, an electronic file.7 Our task is to understand that it must be an accessible electronic file, and that all media representations of this file--whether hardbound standard print books, large print, braille, recorded audio, or synthesized audio--are all alternative media to a single electronic source;
  • Actively work for a strong convergence of OEBF, AAP, and NISO/DAISY standards; and
  • Relinquish immediately any plans of producing any new titles in ASCII.


The best news before us is simple. Our goal is achievable. We are in a position to influence the outcome. We must recognize that there is not now, and never will be, any inevitable development of technology. Rather, tomorrow's technology will always reflect the dreams and the aspirations of those who build it.

The advocacy position of organizations serving blind persons regarding technology has always stressed the importance of incorporating access considerations in the design of technology early and throughout the development cycle. We have the opportunity before us to shape tomorrow's book technologies to incorporate the needs of all readers including blind readers. If we choose to ignore this opportunity, we will have no standing to complain about it should it prove insufficient for our constituency when it is built by others.

An exciting future beckons on the horizon. Blind consumers are eager to begin using digital talking books now. Certainly, all blindness organizations and professionals should promote NISO/DAISY by word and deed, and work actively in word and deed for a convergence with OEBF and AAP. The real potential for a compelling and transformational change in blind people's access to published information for generations to come is sufficient reason. In the end analysis, we need no other reason. But open standards convergence is in everyone's interest, so all stakeholders should work actively in word and deed for a convergence in electronic book technologies from which all will benefit for generations to come


1. Developed at the American Foundation for the Blind in the late 1920s, the talking book is better known in publishing today as an "audio book."

2. Bookbag of the Future: Dental Schools Stuff 4 Years Work of Manuals and Books into 1 DVD. (2000, March 2). The New York Times, p. G1.

3. National Information Standards Organization (NISO), Digital Audio-based Information SYstem Consortium (DAISY). For a fuller description, see later section entitled "Work on Digital Talking Books".

4. Two telephone companies split the market in Kansas City in the first decade of the 1900s. Yet, a customer of either of these companies could not telephone a customer of the other company because the technologies were incompatible. Such a circumstance--where, for example, a customer of AT&T could not call a customer of MCI--is unimaginable today. Yet, it is part of the history of telephony. In e-mail communications this same phenomenon was common as recently as the early 1990's when a subscriber of Compuserve could not send e-mail to a subscriber of America Online (AOL), for example.

5. Racing to Convert Books to Bytes: Evolving Market for E-Titles. (1999, December 9). The New York Times, p. C1.

6. The first typewriter known to actually work was built by Pellegrino Turri for his blind friend Countess Carolina Fantoni da Fivizzono. Turri wanted to help her write legibly.

7. The fact that the word processors favored by authors and the printing software utilized in the press room may not now easily share files with the customer's electronic book viewing device means only that the technology industry has not been told to resolve these discrepancies. The point of fact is that electronic files are widely and heavily utilized by almost everyone throughout the publishing process from concept (often in e-mail) through final product (inventoried and shipped with the assistance of tracking software). In other words, the blue pencil and the glue jar may soon sit in the museum alongside implements from the scriptorium.

Please direct all comments regarding this AFB White Paper to the authors: Janina Sajka & George Kerscher

Janina Sajka, Director of Information Systems Research and Development at the American Foundation for the Blind.

George Kerscher, Research Fellow at Recording For the Blind & Dyslexic (RFB&D); Project Manager to the DAISY Consortium; and Chairperson of the Open Electronic Book Forum Board of Directors (OEBF).

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