Readersforum's Blog

April 11, 2013

Ending the book famine for the blind

A text to braille computer display.

A text to braille computer display.

By Marcus Low

A treaty that has the potential to change the lives of millions of blind people is at risk of being hijacked by publishers who show no sympathy for the difficulties faced by blind people across the world

It has been estimated that only 0.5% of books in South Africa are available in formats accessible to blind people. For the United States, less than 5% is the often quoted figure. I am slightly skeptical of these statistics, but there can be no doubt that the situation is very bad. It is what some call a “book famine”.

In practice it means that many visually impaired learners and University students in developing countries don’t have access to textbooks. Even at the comparatively well-off Universities of Cape Town and Stellenbosch, it was up to volunteers to scan and edit the textbooks I needed during my studies. I received many books late. Others not at all. (If you wonder why the most likely place where you will see a blind person is sitting outside CNA with a guide dog collecting money, at least part of the reason is that access to education –and thereby employment– is significantly restricted by poor access to books.)

Twenty or thirty years ago little could be done about the book famine. Printing braille books is simply too time-consuming and resource intensive. Technology has since changed things completely. Today visually impaired people can read books on computers using text-to-speech technology, magnification, by means of so-called braille displays (expensive devices that have one line of changeable braille), or normal audio books. Technically speaking, every book on the planet that was once a word, text or other kind of file can now quite easily be made accessible to blind users. Instead of 0.5% or 5%, we have the technical capacity to be close to 100%.

Yet, even in the era of iPhones, Google Books and pocket-sized supercomputers, the book famine persists. There are two reasons for this.

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