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.

Revisiting the Tremé By Way of ‘Treme’, #52essays2017

I’m a little late to the party, but then again I was sort of early too. I just started watching the HBO show treme, and I love it so much, I don’t allow myself to binge watch. I save it for a good ole romp on the treadmill—one episode a day, if I make it to the treadmill. The opening credits get me going every time.

But it was episode 5 of season 1 “Shame, Shame, Shame” that provoked me to write. Thanks to the great sound design, the second line scene—before the shooting—was viscerally what I remember my life in New Orleans being. It was so full of brass that you felt your head would blow off in the wind–the closest thing to a punk show I’ve experienced since my few punk shows back when I was a kid. But the shooting felt real too. Treme does a great job of depicting so much that is beautiful and scary and totally out of control and special about New Orleans.

My best friend Indigo and I moved to New Orleans in 1996, just two years after New Orleans infamously broke the record on murder. “Nov. 29, 1994, is the day the murder record was broken in New Orleans. There were 28 more murders before the year ended,” according to NOLA.com. I was vaguely aware of the dangers of the city that I bragged to my California friends was the closest thing I could get to a third world country and still be in the united states—and that was before Katrina and her aftermath that is depicted in Treme.

It would have been impossible to not notice that instead of goodnight or have a good one people said, “Be careful.” At the Circle K down the street from us, at the bars when you were leaving, at the corner store, everyone said, “Be careful.” Perhaps it was because we were two pretty naive white girls living in a predominantly black neighborhood on the other side of Ramparts from the French Quarter, but I think it was also a sign of the times.

I suppose I should mention that I can’t see a damn thing of the show, and my memories of New Orleans and the Tremé are of a time when I could see pretty well. I was visually impaired, so there wasn’t always a lot of detail, and I couldn’t read normal print, and I couldn’t recognize faces. But I could still see.

I could see our swimming pool with its hodgepodge of floaty toys and the banana trees that would grow before your very eyes. When Indigo and I first moved there, we just sat in that picture window smoking and saw those trees shoot up and sprout leaves and fruit. And I could see the crazy inhabitants of our little Shangri-La parade by: the strippers and the hookers and the punks and the gay gentrifiers and the boys next door (who were, like us, from California) and the French business guy.

And I could see the wacky architecture, eight apartments carved crazily out of two antebellum mansions and their carriage houses: ours was the downstairs ballroom-fronted apartment with two shoebox bedrooms stacked on top of each other in the back with odd vanity lightbulbs running from my room to Indigo’s above which she accessed with one of those iron spiral staircases that are made to go into tiny spaces, so common in Paris. And next door the boys lived in a five-story apartment that was just one room stacked on top of the other, starting with the kitchen and topped by a roof.

Our grand mansion was on the front side of the Tremé, if you think of the front as Esplanade, but on the backside if you think of the Tremé as the heart, which we did. Directly behind our pool was Little People’s, which was run by the family of Kermit Ruffins and it would burst with music every Wednesday night. You had to be careful upon entering, had to wait for the music to stop because the place was so small that the drums had to be set up right in front of the door.
And you’d go in and the place was packed and the horns were in your face and the beers were two dollars and the chicken necks were on the house and I just remember being there with a huge smile every time, thinking this is the real new Orleans, which seems to me to be the sometimes tongue in cheek sometimes painfully true motto of Treme.
If you’ve seen the show you know Kermit Ruffins is a fantastically fun entertainer and excellent trumpeter, but he was basically a staple in our lives when we were there. I can’t claim to have been a close personal friend, but we saw him play all the time, and he and other such legendary locals came to our ballroom apartment once or twice.

I couldn’t help but fall in love with the show Treme from the very first episode when Davis, who reminds me of 95% of my performer/musician friends—yes, I’m talking to you!–sees Elvis Costello, who appears as himself in the show, and tries to get Kermit to go up and introduce himself because it would be so great for his career, and all that, and he’s so hopping frustrated that he finally says something like, “Kermit, you’re telling me all you wanna do is get high, play some trumpet and barbecue in New Orleans for the rest of your life?” And of course Kermit’s like, “yep, that sounds pretty good.” And everyone laughs at Davis’s expense.

Well, some part of me agrees with Kermit and wishes I would have stayed in New Orleans at 1260 Esplanade, on the backside of the Tremé, and continued my simple Big Easy life. I worked at Degas House, the ancestral home of the painter Degas’s creole relatives turned bed and breakfast. I was its breakfast chef and every morning I rode my blue and yellow banana-seat bike up Esplanade and back. I made egg puffs and quiches and muffins for tourists. It was an adorable job, made odd by my visual impairment. And I almost didn’t go to New York, to grad school, because of that job and our cute little band, an all-girl punk band called “Down There,” with me on drums and Indigo as our front woman.

Recently I’ve been reading guidebooks and doing research for a story I’m working on, which is what led me to the show. It’s all brought my nostalgia for the Tremé and New Orleans to the foreground, but of course there’s the fact that I was in my twenties and still had vision, so my nostalgia is a little mixed up with those things too, which makes going back even more impossible for me than most. That’s ok, I listen to Treme.