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.

1984: Late to the Party Again, Essay 6 of #52essays2017

Menacing cover of a Czech copy of 1984In the year 1984, I was in sixth grade, a scholarship child in a private girl school. The eighth graders were reading George Orwell’s 1984 and had plastered the walls with images of our headmistress that read, “Big Sister is Watching YOU.” We didn’t know what it meant, but we understood that it was witty and smart and that that group of girls was particularly beloved by the teachers, headmistress and principle and could get away with such things. Our class, dominated by girls whose anger and sadness ruled their intelligence, was not, I understand now, so beloved.

Though I’d started having trouble seeing the blackboard back in fourth grade, it was not until sixth that I began having trouble reading print. One time in history class, which I loved, I was taking a pop quiz and stared at the purple ditto ink, astonished and afraid because I couldn’t make out a single word. I raised my hand and told Mrs. Clark in a nervous whisper that I wasn’t able to read it. She turned the paper over and there was the quiz! We laughed. I told that story many times in those years when my eye disease seemed merely an odd anomaly, a predicament that presented problems easily solved in a class of 40 with smart caring teachers.

It was also in sixth grade that I was presenting a book report with my friend (with whom I would in another year or two vandalize the school one night with shaving cream), reading notes we’d written with pale blue ink that I suddenly could not read, and I stumbled over my part of the presentation. She laughed and snatched the notes away. It was not mean-spirited. She simply took control of what I’d not been able to do. I stood, as I would so often stand through my teens and twenties, very still, mortified. It was my great shame not to be able to read anymore.

In earlier grades, I’d been a great reader, a cocky little reader who’d gleefully raise her hand to read aloud and took pride in reading ahead while my classmates labored. I’d show off the adult books I was reading, pilfered from my mother’s bookcase, Agatha Christie mysteries, Gone with the Wind.

Some of my favorite memories of childhood are of reading in special places. I remember finishing Little Women while sitting in the branches of a tree in the huge shared backyard of my grandmother’s apartment complex. I remember reading the end of Jane Eyre, tears rolling down my face in the window seat of the library on 9th Avenue, where I’d wait for my mother to get off work at the clothing boutique around the corner on Clement Street. And I remember reading Poe stories on the bus ride out to the SF Zoo to volunteer on Saturday mornings.

By the time I was in eighth Grade, and it was our turn to read 1984, reading was no longer a pleasure but a chore. I never finished it. I bluffed my way through. If I had good lighting, was not tired, and did not mind how slow it went, I could still read for another year or two, but mostly, the act of scanning words with eyeballs had a hole in it. Where the words should be, there was nothing.

I did not get into the fancy high schools of my peers. I went instead to my neighborhood public school, where my mother had gone before me. I received no help and my rebel self wanted none. I had my smarts and the classes were not challenging. They sucked and I hated it all except for ninth grade English Honors.

Mr. Davis squeezed a few more reads out of me–I remember being particularly engrossed by Green Mansions. He had us watch Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bete, which made a lasting visual impression on me though I could not read the subtitles. He also kept alive for a little while longer the pleasure I took in writing–I’d thankfully taught myself to touch-type the year before on my mom’s manual typewriter. For his class I typed up the last story I would write for a long time. It was about two girls who’d run away. They sat smoking in the McDonald’s on Powell Street. Only one had a pang of regret for the childhood lost and the certainty she’d never go back. I believe that was my last A until college.

Some paltry years of learning flew by, with little school attendance and much teenage debauchery. I cut classes and smoked cigarettes in a café down the street with my best friend–the best friend I still have and the only good take away from that school other than Honors English. I still fancied myself intelligent, a writer. I think I even sometimes dreamed of getting a doctorate someday.

But words and faces were slipping from me: wandering the used bookshop with my friends meant faking it. Looking in used record shops meant looking for recognizable covers with large print. Watching TV meant pretending to see what was going on if it were more than a few feet from me. I took it all in as shame and anger and nursed it with booze and candy.

Doctored newspaper clipping of Tony Randall handing RFB&D Achievement Award to GodinWhen I finally dropped out of high school, it was in order to move on to City College. High School was not working. Finally I got help. Finally I learned about an organization called Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic from whom I would receive an achievement award upon my college graduation some years down the line, handed to me in a fancy ceremony in NYC by Tony Randall. Now RFB&D is called Learning Ally and students don’t have to wait for their digital downloads–blind kids are so lucky these days!–but back in the pre-digital stone age, they sent clunky blue boxes of recorded books on tape cassettes via snail mail.

The first book I remember listening to on the plastic companion cassette player was 1984, the aborted read from years earlier. I was completely hooked and listened to it over the course of a night. The best part about reading by listening is that you do not have to worry about your eyes getting tired.

But those little blue boxes were limited. It takes a long time to have people read books onto tape and to process them. It took time for them to arrive in the mail, a delay of one to three weeks. So that sometimes, by the time I received them, I’d forgotten what prompted me to order them. I could not borrow books from friends and I could not often even get ahold of those they were reading, but at least I could read some. Eating chips or smoking while listening to novels was my great escape.

It was wonderful to have access to books again, but there was shame in those blue boxes, shame in listening to books with my ears instead of reading with my eyes. I hid them away from my friends as much as possible.

Although I still listen to books, having them come to me in a digital file that I listen to in a ubiquitous and perfectly quotidian iPhone has changed everything. The shame is gone, or nearly so. There are so many books available to me through blind organizations such as Bookshare, or through universally available sources such as Project Gutenberg and Kindle, that I can get ahold of most everything I want to read quickly and easily. Others I can scan. In fact, I have so many books on my phone that it has, I’m afraid, made me a little more deficient in attention than I once was, but I’ll take the downside with the many upsides of being able to be current with my intellectual interests. And also able to keep up with what’s going on in the world’s intellectual meanderings, such as they are.

This time, when the call to read 1984 shot around the internet, I was able to download and start reading it immediately. Naturally I’m horrified and darkly amused by the ludicrous behavior of this president and his lackeys with their “alternative facts,” but in some ways I’m more concerned about the hypocrisy of so many of my peers who seem already to have forgotten the jokes and apathy that led up to the election. It is trendy to bash this sad sack in the White House but unthinkable to question one’s own culpability.

Honestly, I’ve shied away from the news since the new presidency. An avid listener to NPR since the Gulf War in 1990, last fall found me angry at my radio for the first time for taking Trump seriously on the one hand, and as just an impossible joke on the other. That so many people I knew felt mostly apathy before the election and have turned fanatical since also feels like a betrayal on the order of 1984 itself. “‘The only evidence is inside my own mind, and I don’t know with any certainty that any other human being shares my memories.'”

The connections between 1984 and the current state of affairs in politics that put the 68-year-old novel at the top of Amazon’s Bestseller list is obvious, but it ought to be recognized as complicated, as our hero Winston Smith is complicated. If Trump being in the white house suggests the regime of Big Brother, I think we ought to allow for the possibility that we are like the very flawed Winston who can in one breath cling to his humanity as the only weapon against the Party:

“‘If you can feel that staying human is worthwhile, even when it can’t have any result whatever, you’ve beaten them.'”

And in the next throw away that humanity in the thoughtless acceptance of rebelling:

“‘You are prepared to cheat, to forge, to blackmail, to corrupt the minds of children, to distribute habit-forming drugs, to encourage prostitution, to disseminate venereal diseases–to do anything which is likely to cause demoralisation and weaken the power of the Party?’

‘Yes.’

‘If, for example, it would somehow serve our interests to throw sulphuric acid in a child’s face–are you prepared to do that?’

‘Yes.'”

These words will come back to haunt Winston in the Ministry of Love even before the final betrayal, suggesting an irony that in the very act of rebelling he steps that much closer to those he is rebelling against, towards their destructive utilitarian philosophy that deems the most heinous acts worthy if they further the cause. To lose one’s humanity in the face of fear and anger is too easy and more dangerous if left unrecognized.

 

*This is essay 6 of #52essays2017, written with all four senses and remembered sight. Read my previous essay Ylang-ylang: Calming the Panic of Love & Memory here*

Nietzsche and His Pain Named Dog, #52essays2017

I have given a name to my pain and call it “dog.” It is just as faithful, just as obtrusive and shameless, just as entertaining, just as clever as any other dog–and I can scold it and vent my bad mood on it, as others do with their dogs, servants, and wives. –Nietzsche, The Gay Science.

I first heard this Nietzsche quote while I was sewing–yes, I like to sew and listen to philosophy books as well as novels! It was a quote that caused me to stop my electronic reader and sew quietly for a while. Then I read it and reread it with more and more attention and finally, a poem popped out! Although it needed another month or two of embellishments and revisions, it felt complete, like it was destined to be a thing, from the very beginning.

The poem “A Pain Named Dog” is one of the few I’ve written that I keep coming back to and it seems to keep resonating. I usually tell people that I stole the central conceit from Nietzsche, and I hope that sometimes It gets people to read The Gay Science, but who knows? It’s just a book of aphorisms, so spending time with one of the aphorisms is perhaps as good as flipping through them all.

I presented it last summer at the School for Poetic Computation as a part of my lecture I called “Nietzsche in a nutshell,” and it resonated with the students who were reading works on writing disability, including Nussbaum’s great book Frontiers of Justice, which I write about more in Exploding Stigma.

In The Gay Science, written after a period of illness, Nietzsche illustrates what Nussbaum has to say about the generality of humans entering into and out of disability/dependence throughout their lives. Nietzsche makes embodiedness a central tenet of his philosophy, and pain a necessary component of that embodiedness. His relationship to pain, namely treating his pain as if it were a dog to be trained and disciplined, turns pain from a thing that he submits to into a thing that submits to him.

Perhaps then it makes sense that “A Pain Named Dog” turned out to be the first poem I read out loud in public since I’d lost the ability to read normal print around the age of twelve. For decades I was ashamed of my inability to read with my eyes, and embarrassed that I could no longer read out loud. I was really good when I was a kid.

Finally I hit upon using my little electronic reader’s earbud as a Cyrano, whispering my own words into my ear. That tiny fix made it possible for me to enter fully into a writerly life, and it was not new technology but a kind of paradigm shift in my mind about what reading was. Though I’d been listening to electronic books for decades, I somehow did not make the leap of understanding it to make possible my own presentation of words.

 

A Pain Named Dog

I have given a name to my pain

And call it Dog.

I can tell it to sit, lay down,

Roll over, play dead.

I scold it and shame it

And pretend it’s my bitch

And though it worries my carcass

And growls and shits,

It gives me a leg up. On profundity.

 

I have given a name to my beauty

And call it Snake.

I observe it wind my hand

Delicate as flowers ferocious as fangs

I tell it, PULSE DANGER.

            SWALLOW BLIND MICE.

And though its little murders do not ripple

The still-water universe

It’s all about ego. Feeling groovy.

 

I have given a name to my anger

And call it Cockroach

I fatten it with booze and candy

It waxes petty and cruel

I chase it to squash it

Curse its very existence

But because it incites war

In the bowels of men

It does me some good. Keeps them in check.

 

I have given a name to my disease

And call it Devil

Sad Devil. Mean-spirited

Jealous and cruel.

I know the Fiend called Devil

Is the Blindness called Life

Still I shout HUZZAH

With the rest.

It appeases. Why not?

 

I have given a name to my sadness

And call it God

I tell it YOU ARE DEAD.

Long live you?

I command SIT STAY ROLL OVER

            At least fucking PLAY DEAD

And though it is just as obtrusive and entertaining

Shameless as any other god,

There are others. I pray.

*First published at The Kitchen Poet and reprinted at Eunoia Review*