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.

The Sea Spells, Helen Keller’s Favorite Books

“Books have been my most intimate companions,” wrote Helen Keller in a letter to a suitor in 1922.

There can be little doubt that Helen derived much pleasure from the solitary communion of reading. That much of this pleasure was escapist in the extreme, she freely admits, “More than at any other time, when I hold a beloved book in my hand my limitations fall from me, my spirit is free. Books are my compensation for the harms of fate. They give me a world for a lost world, and for mortals who have disappointed me they give me gods.”

Books supplied what Helen’s missing senses could not, but they also supplemented the world’s lack. Failure and frailty, greed and indifference could never be totally got over in this world, but in the world of books men and women could live the lives of heroes. Helen was by no means misanthropic, but neither was she a Pollyanna. She was a card-carrying Socialist and political activist. In 1913, she published a book of essays called Out of the Dark, which railed against capitalist greed and demanded social reformation. Her decidedly leftist outspokenness angered many people who saw her radical politics as abhorrent, and antithetical to their angelic ideal of her.

If her politics were radical, her literary tastes were perhaps less so, and yet…. And yet, there were so few books available to her. She did not have the luxury of electronic books or of searching vast databases. She necessarily relied heavily on others to tell her about new books and authors. Often she had to have them transcribed for her, a costly and time consuming effort. Sometimes the easiest, if least satisfactory, method was simply to have someone read a book to her by spelling into her hand. This meant she would not be able to refer back to it. Once read, it was lost. I can only wish she had more books at her disposal.

She writes in her second and less famous autobiography Midstream: My Later Life, that her most beloved book is the Bible:

“I cannot take space to name here all the books that have enriched my life, but there are a few that I cannot pass over. The one I have read most is the Bible. I have read and reread it until in many parts the pages have faded out – I mean, my fingers have rubbed off the dots, and I must supply whole verses from memory, especially the Psalms, the Prophets, and the Gospels. To the Bible I always go for confidence when waves of doubt rush over me and no voice is near to reassure me.”

Though The Bible is a singular case, she says something similar when she writes about Walt Whitman:

“He has been an inspiration to me in a very special way. I began to read his poetry years ago at a time when I was almost overwhelmed by a sense of isolation and self-doubt. It was when I read the Song of the Open Road that my spirit leaped up to meet him. For me his verses have the quality of exquisite physical sensations. They wave like flowers; they quiver like fountains, or rush on like mountain torrents. He sings unconquerable life. He is in the middle of the stream. He marches with the world’s thought, not against it.”

For Helen, the authorial voice of Whitman seems almost to take the place of a friend’s comforting voice, and her tribute apparently acknowledges Whitman as the inspiration for the title Midstream in which the quote may be found.

The degree to which she must have sometimes felt isolated is something I can only imagine, but still I completely relate to the compensatory pleasure she found in books. They offer worlds not ordinarily perceived by us. And more, they urge us to make analogies, which at their best serve to wash over the irreconcilable individuation of experience.

I will let her own beautiful words about Joseph Conrad (also found in Midstream) read us out:

“I did not really make his acquaintance until 1920 – I did not have any of his books in Braille until then. I cannot define the peculiar fascination he has for me, but he took possession of me at once. I had always loved books of the sea, and the days I have spent along the shore have been happy ones. I love the dunes and the sea weeds that drift and crawl up on the sands, the little waves that creep through shell and pebbles like fingers seeking to spell a message to me. We used to be friends when you were the beginning of a fish – do you remember? I love winds and storms and sailors, tropical dawns leaping out of the east, and billows that like mighty tusked mastodons crunch the land. It may be that I am especially alive to the spell of the sea because it is so much like darkness that is my element. The dark too, has its deep silent currents and dangerous reefs, its monsters, its creatures of beauty, its derelicts and ships. In the dark too, there is a star to steer by, and no matter how far I travel there are always before me vast oceans of experience that I have not yet explored.”

The Genius and his Awl, a blind history

[School for the Young Blind, 1829]

 

I have heard of The Death of Marat. Marat was, they say, dotted with ugly holes in his skin that oozed and gave pain. He only found relief in the bath, so that is where he stayed. With his writing table hovering above the surface of the water, he took the names of traitors and wrote them on his Guillotine list. He was stabbed by mademoiselle Corday, a girl who hoped to stop the madness. David, ever the sycophantic whore of the revolution, bathed the scene in a holy light, forever casting the mastermind of the REIGN OF TERROR a martyr in the gullible eye of the viewer. Once again, the eye deceives the mind!

 

 

Now my professors paint me a rebel because I dare to teach a writing system that works better than that of poor old father Haüy. So much for progress. These petty pedants wouldn’t recognize progress if it bumped them on the back of their heads. Ha, bumps, that’s what we’re talking about! You would have laughed to see me point at them in my tribunal and say, “You are all no better than a lot of Oedipuses and I, like Tiresias, warn you to reconsider your folly!” They did not like that at all. Not at all. Sighted people have very fragile egos!

 

How can they not see that nothing man creates is perfect? Fine-tuning—even the most magnificent instrument—is always possible. Consider the organ. With each new great one built, the air pumps more efficiently, the levers glide more smoothly and the stops are placed ever more precisely. There is something divine in progress. Perhaps even God is a tinkerer? One could wish for some improvements. Hear me Lord, my suggestion for the next version of Man: please make the eyeball a little less delicate. It seems a very important organ to be so vulnerable. Or else make us humans less clumsy…

 

My father was a saddler,

A sad saddler was he,

For I, his little boy,

Would be a saddler too.

Sitting at my father’s bench,

I took the awl in hand,

The awl missed its mark

And found my eye!

 

The infection spread from the poked out eyeball to the other and made me blind. Happily, my sad parents did not let me fall into helplessness. They encouraged me to study with my sisters. Then we learned of this place. I was so excited—they said there would be books for me! And, to be fair, there were books…three books! Each of them: a grammar book, a prayer book and a history of France, weighed more than I did!

They were made before the revolution when the aristocracy was feeling panicky and philanthropic. Ever since the fight for liberté and égalité seized the soul of France, there’s been no money for making blind people books. Not only are these embossed books enormous and expensive to produce, but they are really hard to read. The raised letters are so big and take so long to feel that by the time you get to the end of a sentence, you’ve forgotten the beginning! Nonetheless, I read them. I reread them. The whole time thinking, there must be a better way.

 

Then, when I was twelve, Captain Barbier brought us his Night Writing, a sonography he had invented for Napoleon. The dots and dashes he poked out on thick paper represented sounds, military intelligence that could be read in the dark, without a torch, without alerting the enemy. It was a revelation!! The raised dots were so much easier to feel than raised lines. Not only could we read the dotted signs but, with a small pointed tool, we could poke out dots of our own. Still, there was room for improvement: the captain’s system, while more compact than embossed Latin characters, was still too bulky and the symbols corresponded to sounds rather than letters. In order to read like sighted people, we would need an alphabet.

 

For eight years I’ve worked on my system. Making it readable. Making it easy to learn. Making it into something that is truly useful and life changing. And what do I get? Greif from Barbier and obstinacy from my professors! Imagine, ten men arguing the fate of my invention with more gusto than they would the fate of my head! They act as if my dotted letters threatened the very existence of writing. As if the Latin script had been handed down to Moses with the Ten Commandments!

 

I would not trade my blindness for theirs. I accept the burden of my prophetic vision as have so many of my blind brothers before me. I see bump, no bump, bump, no bump, bump, no bump, bump, as a binary code that will someday link blind technology to that of the sighted in a language so precise as to reveal their Latin characters as chicken scratch!

 

So be it. My bumpy little system does not need their support. That is, dare I say, the genius of it. We can poke out our letters without books…but some books would be nice! And yes, I have noticed that the instrument I use to poke my alphabet looks a lot like a little awl. The irony is not lost on me. It is a very clever awl that pokes holes in whatever it is asked: saddles, harnesses, belts, boots, corsets, hearts, eyes, minds, time!

 

Thus, my blind eyes are the ultimate awl that burst through time to look to you, spectators of the future, to see that I, Braille, invented.

 

 

*First published as “The Awl” at FLAPPERHOUSE*

The Spectator & the Blind Man: Stories of Seeing & Not-Seeing

nytheatre.com review by Ed Malin
The characters in this show are all very sexy for the way they helped give “light” to the blind during and after the Age of Enlightenment.
It starts with the host of the show, writer-director-costumer designer Dr. ML Godin, an obviously big-hearted scholar who is determined to bring this history to the people through an accessible “steam punk aesthetic”. Ms. Godin introduces six monologists who, in a refreshingly real, non-period piece style which I find . . . READ MORE

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