by Eleanor Collins
It is time to “see differently” when it comes to the ebook – not as literature’s villain, but as the people’s hero.
When attacking the ebook many cite the physical and sensuous experience of reading, but for approximately 285 million visually-impaired individuals worldwide technology is essential if they are to be included in the world of literature. There has been a boom in the number and availability of reading assisting technologies. Nearly all devices, including the ebook, allow partially-sighted readers to modify the size, colour and contrast of the text. But this doesn’t benefit the blind, who are encouraged to listen rather than to read. Alex Lee claims that screen readers and other audio devices have developed to such an extent that Braille is no longer necessary: that reading and writing is no longer necessary. But what is the result of removing the kind of experience so many sighted individuals take for granted in and outside of the book?
From navigating buttons on an elevator to delving into a book at your own pace, or even writing one of your own, simple pleasures are taken for granted when you can see. Peter White, a blind writer for The Guardian, insists that listening to audio is not the same as reading, no matter how refined the technology. Figures suggest that many people agree: despite the rising number and use of audiobooks, only 1 in 10 report listening to them. Audio technology has been a vital aid for the visually impaired, but if others can choose to read, why can’t the blind? Blogger Sandy describes how ‘nothing can substitute the confidence and independence that reading and writing Braille provides’.
When I first read about digital braille displays, I thought there was finally a solution. This device translates the words on a screen into braille at your fingertips. As long as there is a digital copy of a text, the literary world is your oyster. So why are digital braille displays not more frequently promoted? Even the RNIB assistive technology tutorial only mentions them in passing. The likely reason? A hefty price has been placed on literary independence: a single device can cost between £1,500 and £10,000. In contrast, some audio technology is marketed below £100 or even in the form of a free app. Is there a price you can put on reading? For the blind, yes.
Whilst reading continues to be an essential part of living, whether in leisure, education, navigation or work, more needs to be done to make reading accessible to the blind. As an English literature student, I can’t imagine life without books, and believe no one should be barred from entering the wonderful literary world.