What do blind people read? Surprise: eBooks!
More and more often I read comments and posts from a branch of people who consider themselves resilient and resistant. Those who love paper and who without any chance of changing their minds abhor digital.
Of course, I don’t need to write which paper it is. Only that of books, i.e. novels (no one considers short stories, but you can find some interesting ones here if you like). For everything else, newspapers, scientific articles, recipes, medicine mugs, reading digitally is fine. For books, on the other hand, no, people want paper out loud.
The main reason for this seems to be the ‘coldness’ conveyed by the display of an eBook Reader. Whether these same people then spend 90% of their time polluting the day of friends and relatives with pictures of kittens on Whatsapp, is another story.
The real problem lies not in the struggle between paper and display, but in the notion (wrong on both sides) that the container is worth more than the content. It is a perception of reality that distorts the meaning of reading and is based on the assumption that everyone has the same opportunities to enjoy what is written.
Fondazione LIA (Libri Italiani Accessibili) had already come to these conclusions on 18 June 2013, when it made 2,500 accessible eBooks available on its online catalogue. All this thanks to the support of AIE (Italian Publishers Association), which has been active in the field of cultural inclusivity since 2011.
But what is an accessible book? It is in effect an eBook that, following certification by an expert, offers people with visual impairments or reading difficulties the possibility of being adapted to different needs. In fact, each eBook in the LIA catalogue has its own reference card with its accessibility characteristics. A few examples? The enlargement of the text characters, the change of colours for text and background or the alternative description for non-text content.
The target audience is vast. It is not only people with visual disabilities (visually impaired and blind), but also users with specific learning disorders, such as dyslexia.
The numbers speak for themselves: in Italy there are more than 2 million people who fall into the above categories. Moreover, a survey conducted by Doxa on behalf of AIE, in collaboration with the Italian Union of the Blind and Visually Impaired and CNUDD (National Conference of University Delegates for Disability), showed that people with visual impairments read three times more than the average sighted reader.
For many people, therefore, not only is paper not a cherished memory, but a real impediment. This is why LIA has chosen the eBook as a medium: production is cheaper and publication times faster than a printed Braille version. Furthermore, it is a format adaptable to many screens (smartphones, computers, tablets, eReaders) and many uses. For example, a PDF or ePUB can be conveniently read from a computer with the help of a braille display. This is an external bar that ‘translates’ digital text, enabling blind people to read with their fingers. Another way to ‘read’ with the senses is to use the speech synthesis functionality, which enables the text to be read aloud (essentially turning the eBook into an audiobook).
New perspectives for blind people
However, these solutions may not be sufficient for blind people studying or for cultural institutions such as museums and libraries. With this in mind, last year four undergraduate engineers from the University of Bologna presented the eBraille project, which won first place in the ‘Emerging Ideas’ category of Vitamina C Digitale. The reader is based on the use of electroactive polymers, which allow the surface to change based on electrical impulses. The screen of this eReader is able to perceive braille characters as if they were in relief, depending on the reading speed of the visually impaired or blind user, by touching the hand directly on the display.
So is an all-digital future in sight? Not necessarily; at least for now, those who prefer the smell of paper can still consider themselves safe. However, it is also very important to be aware of the potential of the eBook, not only in one’s own reading sphere. When we are old, being able to enlarge the text characters at will no longer seem so demonic…
“It works every day with the goal of fostering the creation of an accessible publishing ecosystem for all. An accessible digital publication (such as a PDF or EPUB) is a better quality product for everyone and adapted to different reading needs. Guaranteeing all people the possibility of reading a document, regardless of type and context, means recognising their right to culture and information, to study and work, in full autonomy.”