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Date posted: 11th March 2020
Think about the last book you read. Chances are, it comprised of three key elements: a beginning, middle and end. As part of national storytelling week let us tell you the story of how storytelling has become accessible to blind and partially sighted people.
While stories can take on many different forms, for the purposes of this blog, I’m going to focus on books. Books have been produced for centuries. Up until relatively recently, however, books have only been produced in standard size print. This has presented a significant challenge to those who cannot read print.
The only way in which blind and partially sighted people could access printed books was through other people reading to them – a solution that was less than ideal. I can recall being in primary school and feeling my heart sink when I found out that we were going to be reading and studying a particular book for an entire term because I thought I wouldn’t be able to keep up with everyone else in the class. However, all was not lost…
Two main factors have influenced the accessibility of books to blind and partially sighted people – the adoption of braille and developments in technology. These include:
There are now a number of resources available where you can obtain braille copies of books. The RNIB has over 22,000 braille titles in its library that can be borrowed free of charge for up to three months at a time. The Clearvision Project is another library that loans books which include both print and braille pages, allowing a blind and partially sighted person to read along with a sighted person.
The Amazon Kindle library is one of the most well-known online collections of electronic books. Books can be downloaded and read using the Amazon Kindle application on either a computer, tablet or smartphone. One advantage I find with this method is that I can pair a braille display such as the Orbit Reader 20 and read the book using synthetic speech or refreshable braille. For those with Apple devices, Apple Books (formally Ibooks) offers a range of books in a feature rich application that is fully accessible with Voiceover and Zoom.
The Seeing Ear National Accessible Library is another useful resource for downloading fiction and non-fiction books. What’s more, it’s free to anyone in the UK that has a disability affecting their ability to read printed books.
Another reading alternative is audiobooks, read by professional narrators. I remember listening to my first audiobooks sent to me on cassette tapes from the Calibre Audio Library which provides audiobooks to blind and partially sighted people. Technology has moved on and they now provide content in the popular MP3 audio format which can be played on most computers, tablets, smartphones and audiobook players.
Ever more people are now using the mainstream Audible Audiobook service where members can download a wide selection of professionally recorded titles including recent best sellers. Audible books can be played on many devices, even on smart speakers such as the Amazon Echo.
If having a narrator read to you is not your thing, there are also audio dramas which you can think of as a cross between an audiobook and a film. Companies such as Big Finish and Graphic Audio offer audiobooks created with a full cast of actors and sound effects for purchase.
It is thanks to these advancements and the existence of accessible books that I, along with many other blind and partially sighted people, can enjoy reading just as much as sighted people. It was thanks to having braille volumes that I was able to follow along with the rest of my class when studying and even read parts of the book aloud.
Some stories have a definitive ending, while others are more open ended. The story of equal access to printed books is one that is far from over and it is my hope that more books will be made accessible as technology improves and more publishers produce books in accessible formats. Already, many countries around the world have ratified the Marrakesh Treaty which should encourage more publishers to authorise distribution of copyrighted books in alternative formats regardless of location.
I hope you’ve found this post useful. If you want to learn more about how to read accessible books, remember to check out the Vital Tech website, our impartial guide to assistive and inclusive technology.