An array of technology circles the iconic eye-chart “E,” including: an ophthalmoscope, reading glasses sitting on a dictionary, magnifying lens with an eyeball behind, computer showing the Louis Braille Wikipedia page with a connected braille display, and an iPhone with magnified print and connected earbuds.

Looking at Ebooks & Accessibility With 20/20 Vision in 2020

One definition of legal blindness is having a visual acuity that is best corrected to only 20/200. That means that even wearing glasses, a person can see no better than 20/200 using the standard eye chart. It also means that a person who is legally blind may walk around without a white cane or guide dog, but nonetheless cannot read standard-size  print. According to the CDC, more than 3.4 million (3%) Americans aged 40 years and older are either legally blind or low-vision, and in many of these cases, reading traditional physical books with their eyes is no longer an option.

“My mother/father/uncle/aunt is legally blind , and they’re depressed because they can’t read anymore,” is possibly the most common thing random strangers say to me. Because I’m blind, they want advice, sometimes, but most often they want me to commiserate somehow. They want me to tell them how horrible life is for their loved one now, but I won’t do that because I have technology, and technology has been pretty great for blind people.

In particular, book accessibility is just incredible compared to what it used to be. Braille, since it’s invention in 1829 by Louis Braille, was revolutionary, allowing blind people to read and write for the first time in history. However, producing braille has always been very expensive. I lost the ability to read print in the mid-eighties when I was about 15, and although I tried to learn braille, I was deterred by the dearth of books available in braille.

Enter the electronic braille display. It’s a nifty device that can be connected to your computer or smart phone by wire or wirelessly using Blu Tooth, and translates electronic text into braille—usually twenty or forty cells of refreshable braille that you can scroll through and read with your fingers as the little pins pop up and down in the correct configurations. Suddenly, now that pretty much every book published is available as an ebook (without the hyphen please, like email), I can read the latest release just as soon as my sighted companions. So yes, the much reviled ebook is accessible to blind readers. And unlike the adored audiobook, the ebook is also accessible to deafblind people, such as author Haben Girma, whose 2019 memoire describes how electronic braille helped her not only finish her Harvard law degree but also to communicate with fellow students in noisy social situations.

For many years, I relied on books on tape from non-profit and government organizations. There were so many reasons to be grateful for these audiobooks as they granted me access to school textbooks and for-fun novels. However, audiobooks take a lot of time and money to produce, even when they are relying on volunteer readers. The books on tape of my high-school, college and graduate-school years were not the slick productions that are so easily downloaded today. They were indifferently listenable and slow to arrive. They came by mail in unsexy plastic blue boxes, and  oftentimes I had to wait months, years,  or forever to get ahold of a book that my sighted friends were reading and talking about.

Before braille and audiobooks, there was the wonderful technology of spectacles—invented in Italy around the 13th century. Judging from the fact that all my newly middle-aged sighted friends suddenly need reading glasses, I’m guessing there were a lot of ancient and medieval scholars crying over their inaccessible books.

Thus, it is confusing to me why people—particularly older people are so mistrustful of technology. Technology has always allowed us to extend our working life beyond the years nature (and genetics) intended. Ebooks are a perfect example of how technology can be immensely helpful and yet widely despised.

I am on many bookish email lists (such as NY Times Books Briefing), which I read using my text-to-speech software on my computer or iPhone. The joy I feel at being able to gain immediate access to  items on, say, “The 10 Best Books of 2019” is immeasurable. Before the ubiquity of ebooks, It simply was not possible for me to be so current with books without hiring a legion of personal readers.

I’m still working on my braille skills with my relatively new (and very expensive) display. But now that the books are available I can work on it daily. I recently finished Patti Smith’s 2019  dreamscaped memoir, Year of the Monkey, mostly using my braille display, but switched to my ears (using text-to-speech) when my newbie fingers got numb or when I was eating.

This leads me to an important point regarding the much-maligned ebook: a visually impaired reader can enlarge the print and read with their eyes; a blind reader who does not know braille can listen using text-to-speech software; and a braille reader can use their fingers  with a braille display.

I am not saying that ebooks should displace physical books with their wonderful smell and heft. I dream of having a braille book library of my own someday!  I also dream of owning my own house with a room big enough to house it. But until that wonderful day when I have lots of money and square footage, I am thankful to have access to electronic books. In fact, I would argue that the “cheerleaders” for ebooks a few years back who urged a complete switch from ink and paper to digital hurt my predicament as a reader who relies on digital, by assuming that all readers would love to hold their entire library in one hand.

This idea has understandably suffered a backlash. From this angry Guardian opinion piece railing against the techno-dazzled, to Bill Henderson’s refusal to publish his influential Pushcart Anthology digitally, to ebook-hating authors such as Jonathan Franzen, physical book fetishizers deny the validity and even the reality of digital books as if the printed letters were the thing and not the content and ideas the letters point to.

I am here to say that for me and millions of other print-blind readers, physical print books do not exist as anything more real than a doorstop, while digital books are real, readable books. If you don’t believe me, just pull an Oedipus–poke out your eyeballs–and tell me about the reality of your impressive print-and-ink library.

Book lovers come with all kinds of abilities and disabilities, all kinds of resources and lack thereof. We do not all have rooms for shelves and shelves of books or live next to a world-class library. Many of us have uncorrectable vision loss. Ebooks and digital libraries have opened up countless books for me, and they might very well keep them open for you, when you lose the ability to read with your eyes.

If you, for example,  become print-blind alongside millions of Americans with age-related macular degeneration (a leading cause of visual impairment in those over 60), I hope you will remember my words: Ebooks are accessible books. Get over your technophobia and read.

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