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.

Accessible Coding chronicle

Last week’s ScreenReader Coding Workshop took place in a portion of a giant complex in Brooklyn called MetroTech, which is home to NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering. Within one of the several large building surrounding the square, on a floor buzzing with giant video game consoles and laptops with huge monitors and kids chatting about code and playing/creating video games, we found the Ability Lab, where we were to begin learning code as blind people.

I had rushed to the restroom (because once I’m sitting, I don’t tend to want to move) so that by the time I got to my workstation, the others were already settled. I plugged in my earbud–it is easier to hear both what’s going on around you and what your screen reader has to say with one earbud in and also, in a class with six computers chattering away, earbuds rather than speakers are vital if you don’t want to lose your mind.

But the volume was too loud so I couldn’t hear what was going on outside my computer. I went to the volume mixer to turn it down, but that proved more complicated on this laptop than the one I have at home. An assistant helped me. Finally, I was present to the sounds around me but I had already missed much of the introductions. All I can tell you is that the three instructors–Claire, Atul and Taeyoon–all do cool things involving art and accessibility and programming–stuff that’s hard to internalize when you don’t have much in the way of reference points.

I’m sorry to say that mine is the introduction that I remember best. I said that I got my PhD at NYU, but in the Humanities, so I knew nothing about coding except that a while back, when I first took over my WordPress site from my web guy, I figured out how to <a href=http://www.drmlgodin.com/>The Greatest Blog Ever</a> and was positively thrilled when the link worked. And, to those savvy coders out there who want to interrupt me right now, “You forgot the quotes.” I’ll get to that momentarily, but first we had to tie our shoes!

Or rather, in the interest of learning about algorithms, we had to write, step-by-step instructions of how to tie shoelaces. The test would be Claire tying (or failing to tie) her laces based on our precise instructions.

There was much mumbling and grunting as we worked out how to tell a pretend computer how to tie its shoelaces. Then it was time to share. Chancey, who is famous in the blind community because she put together many of our computers when she worked at the Lighthouse Guild tech center and now organizes many cool events as the Assistive Technology Coordinator at the Andrew Heiskell Library, went first. At a particular instruction, I almost cried out to say, that’s not right! But before I could, Claire said, “my shoes are tied.”

“What, really?” Gus, who was sitting across from me and with whom I hoarded the Oreos, and I were perplexed. “We don’t tie our shoelaces like that!”

I’ll spare you the messy details of a comparative analysis of the two-loop-double-fold and the single-loop-wrap-around-pull-through methods, and simply say that one very important lesson was learned: there is often more than one way to get the same job done. This is apparently true in programming as well as in shoelace tying, and really, when you think about it, in most realms of life.

My first action to beginning any computer class is to open a separate document for notetaking, but I did not realize that there was already a screen open to notepad, so that for the first half of a three-hour class I was taking notes in the sample open html document. In other words, I was taking notes in the middle of a page of code. For those of you who can see, it is very obvious, I think, how many windows and programs are running, but unless we perform a key stroke to list these things, or clumsily alt tab around in circles to get the lay of the land, you don’t really know what’s going on.

We moved on to syntax, which frankly went by very quickly–from <> to {} to tags, such as buttons and attributes, which is when I learned that you are supposed to enclose your link in quotes, but of course I was confused because it had always worked for me without the quotes. Atul explained that, for some very common syntactical constructions, there is some leniency in certain…browsers is it? Or platforms? Not sure, but the fact remains that I was doing it wrong and WordPress let me get away with it, though apparently not using the appropriate quotes might present problems down the line.

The biggest revelation of the day for me was the relationship between the Notepad++ document and the html page, and likewise one of my favorite moments was making a button to nowhere called “Nowhere Button.”

Perhaps I should pause here to explain to my sighted friends that buttons and headings and edit boxes are generally screen reader friendly. They help to organize pages for us. For example, when I’m on a new webpage, the first thing I usually do is press “h” which will move me to the first heading. On the other hand, fancy-pants websites that do not bother to delineate the HTML skeletal structure–May I blame CSS or Java for this?–are not so accessible.

Anyhoo. From what I could gather, CSS is rather the enemy of the blind, and I was dazzled by the acronym until I had a debrief with my buddy David who said it stood for cascading style sheet, which at least gives me a visual image, but it seems a very difficult thing to detect with a screen reader, and Java is apparently no cakewalk either.

Now we come to variables, which was my favorite part of the class, because we got to play a game. We were given a sack of tactile operators (<, >, ==, !=, etc.), and several tactile playing cards numbered 0 to 3. The game began as one of chance–drawing cards and placing them on either side of a random operator to see if the statement was true–but we immediately wanted some strategy, so Phil, who runs the New York City Tri-State Blind and Visually Impaired Community Facebook Group, and I developed a game in which one would draw an operator tile and then pick from his or her cards a number which would present the most difficulties for the opponent. We both realized instantly that a “0” could present a real problem if the opportunity arose, so Phil sat on his “secret weapon” until the moment struck, and he was able to hit me with a 0 is > than, for which, of course, I had nothing to make the statement correct. He and I both grew up in gambling cultures–he in Hong Kong and me in a Greek-American family where poker was played at every get together, so we were ready to throw down, but alas, it was time to move to the coding example…

There was a button named “click me repeatedly” that you clicked repeatedly until you got an alert message like, “that’s annoying” at 7 times and ” arrrgh! ” at 11. In other words, if the number of the variable is greater than 6, then you get one snarky alert, and > than 10 and you get another. The code for this, which included Java, was maybe more complicated than my brains, which were beginning to creak and grind, could handle in this first class. But as Claire said in her agenda, this was to be a “whirl-wind introduction” and therefore I accept ignorance and confusion.

At the end of the workshop, we had a lively conversation about processing, or rather how to make processing accessible. I confess my precise lack of understanding of what is meant by processing in this context. I think it refers to the output of our programming. That is to say, how can we check our work, which is typically presented visually. I offer some of the suggestions we came up with (as pilfered from Claire’s notes):

1) Artificial Intelligence for image recognition

2) Sounds

-Binaural audio (Gus mentioned the Papa Sangre video game)

-Sound fields with system of tonal output (eg. pitch changes for up and down movement)

-Do some math on the fly with coordinates and generate sounds (can’t tell if something is colliding)

3) How PowerPoint templates work in terms of accessibility

-graph or chart templates/frameworks that are manipulatable

4) P5 on a touchscreen?

 

By the way, I was very excited about the “video game without video” called Papa Sangre and downloaded it the next night, because as a sighted kid I loved video games (such as they were back in the Neolithic Period), but was quickly frustrated at my inability to master walking or orientation in the dark, and never did make it to the game. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times, I’m really bad at being a blind person, and apparently, this extends to virtual reality. Sigh.

To finish up, thanks so much to Claire, Taeyoon and Atul for this great starter. Though the handful of us students had many dissonant opinions, we all agreed that we wanted more and can’t wait for the next one..!

Sighted and blind friends, non-coders and coders: please don’t be shy to comment below with questions and corrections…