What’s a print-disabled reader to do? Bookshare!

What’s a print-disabled reader to do?! Bookshare!

This Vision Loser is especially grateful to Bookshare, a “Technology for Society” project of Benetech, at http://www.bookshare.org.
A podcast from Disability411 provides an excellent overview of Bookshare from the perspectives of a disability professional and Bookshare staff.
First, the bad stuff. After years of living under an eyesight prognosis of “precarious, but stable”, battling lighting conditions, driving to then being driven to the library to pick up and return books on CD, and piling up unread newspapers and magazines, I finally lost the last sliver of central vision that gave me print contrast. The “smudges” won. So, what do I do with my library of pleasure and technical books? How do I get my reading fix, my world and local news, my curiosity-driven tutorials? It turned out to be harder to get rid of books than to rebuild my library and reading habits.

Bookshare was my life raft in a swirling sea of change. In a nutshell, new members register, pay $75, get their eye specialist to fill out a form certifying print disability, and then learn their way around the Bookshare website. Find a book they like, then download it to their PC, unpack it (like “unzip”), and readĀ the book using PC software distributed by Bookshare or other readers of DAISY files, a Digital Talking Book format. Other use cases include conversion to mp3 format, e.g. using a tool like TextAlound (previous post) and natural voices. These books are just marked-up text files, not audio, so “turning pages” and speaking requires synthetic voices and special software.

While I found an abundance of books I wanted to read, being tethered to a PC was slowing me down. with some web searching for “DAISY readers”, I found the American Printing House for the Blind Bookport. Now I could download the books onto a mobile device and listen anywhere with ear buds. The Bookport is truly ugly, nothing but a panel of buttons and an older style male voice, “Precise Pete”, to read the books. Book Port Transfer software uses a USB cable to download the DAISY books, slowly, and can also load up the Bookport with converted mp3, Word, HTML, and .txt files. Using the training cassette and on-board help file, I quickly learned how to navigate books, adjust voices, mark spots of interest, move files around, and, most important, change the batteries. Built for the totally blind, the Bookport is better used by the partially sighted without looking, by memory in your finger-tips. Indeed, Bookport is great for reading in bed, equipped with sleep timer and a recorder to journal dreams, but with the dangers of strangler ear buds and night-time prowls for new batteries. Actually, battery life is great, over 40 hours with 2 AA easy replacements.

So, now I had over a hundred books queued up on Bookport, was listening to New York Times best sellers every week, finding new authors and new books by favorite authors on every trip to the Bookshare website, culling through some self-help books in the Disability-related category, and trying to unload boxes of my publisher-supplied course texts on a local university.

Could life get any better? Yes, along comes the Icon PDA from Levelstar with its newsstand, search, and bookshelf all linked directly to Bookshare. Give the Icon your password and browse the Levelstar server version of the Bookshare catalog, download and unpack in one swift action (literally, just seconds),and now I could rebuild my library more deliberately and with less energy expended. I wasn’t comfortable reading books on the more expensive and fragile Icon, so I batch download books every two weeks from the Icon to the PC disk, then over to Bookport, and redistribute to proper directories in its file systems. This script is a good example of where System Integration is required to achieve a goal, here reading comfort.

Since I don’t want to load up on books I don’t intend to read (already done that for decades), I carefully picked topics, tried to find the best sources, used book referrals from newspapers, podcasts, and radio shows. Now I have a library I’d be truly proud to show anyone, but I can’t because it’s all in the little black Bookport and under constraints from Bookshare. Oh, well, I’ll just have to show friends my knowledge.

What a boost to self-esteem as well as enjoyment of reading! I sadly read my way through six books on the Iraq war to identify where I believed things went wrong, and have explained that point in several discussions. I once heard a book review on the WAMU Diane Rehm show and immediately downloaded the book from Bookshare, and once had an emailed question answered about a book I’m now reading. I’ve found many of the technical books contributed by Reilly Press useful for my technical interests in web design and programming. Of course, not every needed book is available but I often find an adequate substitute in the 35000 book collection.

OK, I gain greatly from Bookshare and try to pass on the benefits with friends and family, as a fully functioning member of the reading world. What do I give back to Bookshare? Members and volunteers are the sources of scanned books. My scanning shop works but a few books showed me what grueling work it is, indeed, the Massachusetts penal system uses inmates to scan books for their educational system, as reported on a podcast from ACB (American Council of the Blind). I have contributed two books, one to honor former Governor Ann Richards and another eloquent memoir by editor and ambassador Henry Grunwald. Bookshare dues are only $50 and they welcome donations of cash as well as clean digital copies of books.

The downsides? I found the website rather wordy and in need of overhaul and reported this in a Bookshare user group meeting held at CSUN (disability exhibit in LA in March). Another is the guilt factor that authors and publishers don’t get paid. There must be a good story back in 1996 when a legislator (Chafee?) got in an amendment to copyright law to allow print-disabled people like me limited use of digital versions of books.

The founder of Benetech and Bookshare is Jim Fruchterman , an assistive technology entrepreneur and social activist Recognized for his work by a MacArthur “genius” grant, his Benetech blog tells about his world travels, writings and new ventures.

Regarding my own former personal physical library, I have two regrets. First, I wish I’d begun using Bookcrossings to experience letting some of my favorites lose in the wild rather than boxed into the domiciles of a Friends of the Library shop. I also wish I’d completed my sorting out while I could still read covers and parts of books which is a cumbersome task with magnifiers or a teenage helper .

So, if you’re partially sighted and can fail the vision test, you win entry into a classy organization to keep you amply entertained and informed.

References and Links:

Bookshare http://www.bookshare.org
Benetech blog http://beneblog.blogspot.com
Podcast on Bookshare from Disability411 http://disability411.jinkle.com/show30.htm
OReilly Publishing http://www.oreilly.com
BookCrossings http://www.bookcrossing.com
DAISY Digital Talking Book alliance http://www.daisy.org

Bookport mobile reader ($400) http://www.aph.org
LevelStar Icon PDA ($1400) http://www.levelstar.com (check out the excellent training and demo podcasts)

Author: slger

Susan L. Gerhart (slger) is a retired computer scientist. Her professional specialities included software engineering research, technology transfer management, and computer science education, see SLGer's Research Autobiography. Susan is active in a lifelong learning institute (OLLI) at Yavapai College in Prescott Arizona. She has facilitated courses on podcasts, Twitter, the Singularity, and climate fiction. "As Your World Changes" blog describes her journey with vision loss into the spectacular world of assistive technology and the frustrating practices of accessibility. She writes with the NVDA screen reader, reads books from Bookshare on a BookSense, and listens to podcasts on an iPhone. slger123 on Twitter records her favorite articles and occasional comments on life and politics. Creative writing courses led her to undertake "A Chip On Her Shoulder", a novel asking the questions: "how did we get into the privacy mess of modern social media?" and "Are we now just 'packets of data formerly known as people'?" She's enduring the 2020 Pandemic era and autocracy challenge by analyzing changes in progress, promising, and unknown. Times sure are changing! Contact: slger123 at gmail.com

8 thoughts on “What’s a print-disabled reader to do? Bookshare!”

  1. Hello Susan,

    Thanks for this perspective on Bookshare. I work primarily on getting college textbooks into formats that ‘print-disabled’ students can read. I have been doing this for about 10 years, and have come to the conclusion that the copyright exemption that you refer to, passed in 1996, may now be doing more harm than good.

    Bookshare, RFB&D, the NLS, and other agencies that republish books in accessible formats without permission from publishers or royalties to authors are obscuring the real market for this material. The copyright exemption created a second-class status for so-called ‘specialized formats’, which means that all Bookshare titles are a sort of gray media, restricted to a specific, medically-bound group of readers, even if the publisher were to issue an accessible edition themselves.

    Think about the O’Reilly books you mentioned. What, exactly, is stopping O’Reilly from selling their books in an accessible format? Surely the publisher of highly technical books on XML does not have to partner with a small non-profit agency to figure out how to sell an accessible book to a disabled person. In effect, O’Reilly has outsourced you, and other print-disabled potential customers, to a charitable agency. The copyright exemption seems like it leads to segregation, rather than inclusion.

    So, after reading about what other countries have done to address this issue, I have proposed my own copyright exemption. You can find it here: http://accessiblemedia.wordpress.com/

    I recognize that no one is eager to make any changes to the existing law that would threaten their position, but someday, maybe not too far off, such a revision will become necessary. The sad thing is, publishers already wasted a lot of money on electronic products very few people wanted to buy, when the real core market for electronic books, which is people who can’t read print books, still goes mostly under the radar.

    Bob Martinengo

  2. Thanks for your enlightening comment on the publication industry and the print-disabled copyright exemption, which I’m trying to understand.

    First, let me re-iterate my main point that the ingenuity and availability of Bookshare.org, digital talking book formats, and reading appliances provided me, and others, the humanitarian lift it takes to overcome otherwise devastating loss of continuity of productivity and enjoyment of life. This contrasts with the inhuman loss of health insurance coverage for pre-existing conditions between Cobra and Medicare imposed by the the U.S. system as well as the marketplace reality of extra costs of assistive technology for individual Vision Losers like me. The latter conditions make every advantage and opportunity seem more precious.

    Let me paraphrase to see if I understand your point that the copyright exemption breaks the consumer-producer chain in ways that further undermine publisher incentives to develop a technology and associated dissemination system for which print-disabled people are a special case. Since publication is essentially electronic most print materials are only one technology step away from the model of book reading by synthetic voice using a reading appliance. There must be pricing structure that would work for print-disabled people and might furthermore entice the general population who could prefer a listening-reading model, just as audio books do now. With a broader market print-disabled people would have more choices at possibly reasonable prices.

    Of course, textbook types of material with technical content (equations, graphics, etc.) present more publication challenges than novels and philosophy texts and have more confined user base. As a former college teacher, I saw cost of textbooks factored into students’ appreciation of the subject matter and instructor quality. Ouch, but off-topic.

    Having crossed over into the synthetic voice model of reading and rebuilt my personal library this way, I often feel a bit smug, feeling that I’m using more advanced technology than my still working (and insured) friends who buy or borrow print books. Indeed, I’m a believer in the adage that “improvements for accessibility eventually benefit everybody” so the print-disabled are early adopters whose experience will have wider applicability.

    What can I personally do? I’ve bought books I read through bookshare as gifts for friends. I tried unsuccessfully to track down a privately published book author to send a check. I make referrals to friends and other book readers, including a librarian. I’d be glad to participate in a micropayment system to compensate publishers and authors. I nag organizations like the National Academy Press and individual book authors to donate their books or at least think through accessibility issues. And I try to put my reading knowledge to work in technology development as well as parenting and personal survival.

    So, what is a print-disabled reader to do on a broader scale? and I’m not asking rhetorically. What would I be doing if I lived in France or Canada or Australia or wherever? How can the U.S. system be enlightened by the policies and organizations around the world? I’ll be doing my own research on this question to address in a future posting.

    Very interesting and somewhat disturbing comment — thanks.


  3. I must say, your grasp of the situation is head and shoulders above what I generally encounter, and I enjoyed your comment. Let me expand a little on the economic aspect of this issue. The presumption that charities like RFB&D and Bookshare are outside of the marketplace is part of the problem. RFB&D is actually a good sized publisher, putting out 5,000 new books a year with a budget of over $50 million. Add to that the National Library Service spending around $10 million to record 2,000 books per year, and thats almost as many audio books as were recorded commercially. Now, all of this activity is completely unaccounted for by publishers, so it’s no wonder there is very little recognition of ‘non-print’ readers as viable customers. I’m not saying I have the answer, but copyright exempt books are not a long term solution.

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