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 read 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)

A Simple, Low-Cost, Effective Reading Application

Simple Reading Applications

Let’s assume you can find your way around a screen through a combination of vision, memory, keyboarding, and mousing but can’t read much of the text in documents you access. Is there a low-cost Windows application to read the text for you?

Yes, lots to choose from. Search for the phrase “text-to-speech” and you’ll find advertisements and websites for freeware, shareware, and all kinds of products at less than $100. This blog article is for beginner Vision Losers as well as those looking for alternatives to higher cost assistive technology products.

My main reader for years is TextAloud from http://www.nextup.com, which I’ll discuss as a representative of this class of desktop applications. Some use cases are:

1) In order to read a .txt file on your disk, you open the file for TextAloud to speak it to you. Ditto for .doc, .pdf, and other standard formats.

2) While browsing you find a page you can’t read in screen font form. You click the TextAloud toolbar to read the page in a voice and at a rate you choose.

3) You just do not feel like sitting straight-up with your eyeballs glued to your screen to read a long document. You copy the text to the clipboard, which TextAloud monitors for changes and then reads the text to you.

4) You want a bunch of files in audio form for an MP3 player. Open the files in TextAloud to convert to mp3 format and save in a directory for downloading.

5) You’re editing a document and want to hear how it sounds for tone, style, and mistakes. Beyond audio editing, maybe you’d like to compare male and female sounding voices to see how your writing is perceived by gender-wired brains. Open or copy the draft into TextAloud, choose voices, and listen to your writing as if being narrated.

In other words, TextAloud is a simple word processor with special features for reading the text to you or converting text to mp3 (or WAY) format to be read on another device. One piece of Windows magic is the “copy to clipboard” which transfers text to TextAloud for optional immediate reading.

And, it’s so helpful to have TextAloud right in your browser. Depending on versions and types of browsers, you can have TextAloud as a up there with Search, Favorites, History, etc.. Simply select text to read, wave your mouse over to the easily seen button, click “Speak”, and text is read, even if the desktop application is not loaded. But, wait, there’s more, a bonus zoom plus and minus to avoid a trip into the menus to change text size. As long as you can see the toolbar buttons, text-to-speech is just a click away.

Uh, oh, I’m starting to sound like a commercial here, but my point is simple: this particular product in the low-cost text-to-speech application space performs a lot of functions your vision may not be able to handle.

Really, synthetic voices are a miraculous technology that enables your brain to understand text as if human-read. Older, i.e. 1990ish voices, the ones built into Windows, sound robotic while newer voices are “natural” derived from slices of human speech. We’ll explore these more in a future posting, including fascinating studies about how our brains are socially biased in their speech wiring. Listen to sample readings on an informative and vision-friendly podcast, Allison Sheridan’s NosillaCast at http://www.podfeet.com

TextAloud can be purchased with a bundle of voices which sell individually for around $30. Yes, indeed, buy yourself a choir of male-female, old or young, American-Brit accented voices for a variety of listening experiences. Beware if you are low on GB of disk space as these voice data files are large, upwards of 200 MB to 800 MB. Get to know Kate and Paul, Mike and Crystal, Ray, Claire, Alex, and their developers at RealSpeak, NeoSpeech, ViaVoice, Microsoft, Cepstral, and the home grounds at ATT Labs.

OK, here’s the down-sides of this product. It comes with “skins” to change its look, but they are all way too bright for my photo-receptors so only the No-skin look is available, but it can be customized for font size and color. I like Ariel, size 14 or 16. White or Yellow on a Dark Blue background. Another problem is that opening a Microsoft Word file means suffering template and installation messages as Word itself is opened, and, no, I can’t take it back to the former employer I got it from .For my eyesight and keyboard skills, a drop-down box listing the currently active files is confusing and hard to use. But none of these are show-stoppers nor any worse than other products.

Other applications I’ve used with satisfaction for similar tasks, especially the “read from clipboard” function, are CoolSpeech from http://www.bytecool.com and ACE-HIGH from http://www.textreader.net/ Unfortunately, CoolSpeech ran afoul of my virus checking software and lost its clipboard functionality. This blog post isn’t a product review but here’s one Disability Professional’s product assessment from Beth Case at Disability411 podcast #YYY at URL.

As both a visually impaired user and a software developer myself, I’ve noticed one significant difference among applications in their model of handling multiple requests for readings coming from browsers and other apps copying to the clipboard TextAloud uses a Blocking model, where any request to reads is rejected until the current is done, with an accompanying beep if desired. CoolSpeech uses a sequential reading model where requests are queued and read to completion, one after another. ACE HIGH uses an Interruption model where a read may not completed with new requests starting immediately. Your satisfaction with a product may depend on how well your usage profile matches its read sequencing model.

One final note of warning is that all the voices and applications I’ve tried are easily over-loaded by multiple requests or voice changes, starting to slow down, stop, or speak at the same time, or otherwise babble. TTS isn’t perfect but works amazingly well.

So, here’s a type of desktop application, and one particular satisfied customer for one leading product that Vision Losers can consider. In our theme of “As Your World Changes”, you may find tools like this necessary and/or sufficient some days, or in some lighting situations. With a modest investment in software and voice data files, you now have a classy interface for reading on your PC or mp3 or CD players. Of course, sighted people can use these tools also, but often seem, in our terminology, to be happy with “their eyeballs glued to their screens”, or printed pages, reading the old-fashioned way. Visually impaired people are sometimes the early adopters of technologies like these and go through an evolutionary phase of learning to listen in order to survive in an information-rich world.

Check these out:

Voice samples in NoscillaCast #102 and #103 at http://www.podfeet.com. Other assistive technology information, also.

Disability Professional’s take on many low-cost assistive technology products http://disability411.jinkle.com/show23.htm

TextAloud product from http://www.nextup.com

CoolSpeech product from http://ww.bytecool.com

ACE HIGH Text-to-Speech from http://www.textreader.net.

Future blog articles: “Wired for Speech” book and studies by Stanford professor Clifford Nass; “synthetic voices all around”, co-evolving with humans; high-and-low cost screen readers; how applications speak.


Welcome to a blog about the transition of losing some functions of eyesight and how computing technology can broaden our world of information, entertainment, and relationships. Most people who lose eyesight due to aging, disease, or accident retain significant function but face complex adjustments in their everyday activities. The world of “partial sight” is very different from the worlds of the fully sighted and the fully blind both because vision is often highly variable with continual trade-offs of using retained eyesight and assistive technology.

“As Your World Changes” seeks to draw out information from partially sighted people recently or currently adjusting to loss of vision, and for those anticipating changes, as well as those concerned with disability issues for personal or professional reasons.

I’m a Vision Loser from myopic retinal degeneration with major print disability but sufficient retained eyesight to read what I’m typing at the moment in a specially contrived computing setup developed after much trial-and-error with software and hardware ranging from very expensive to low-cost through free or built-in. One purpose of this blog is to share my “What Works” lessons and learn from the experience of like-abled others.

Another theme of this blog is that we recent Vision Losers are really lucky that we now have a cornucopia of gadgets, voices, and new media to enrich our lives and help overcome the difficulties of vision loss. Notably, as we will show, the medium of podcasting can significantly replace much print reading for news and entertainment. Indeed, the Visually Impaired world is highly accessible via podcasts for new Vision Losers to learn about products, services, organizations, and personalities you never knew you needed to know about.

Here’s a sample of topics to be covered in future blog postings:

exploiting built-in Windows accessibility; many ways of getting applications to read to you; zooming and magnification the ladder of screen readers, options; typing and editing your writing; downloading, listening to, and collecting podcasts; understanding computer use errors and their corrections; assessing the credibility and value of product information; becoming a system integrator. First topic: TextAloud from nextup.com, an all-around, low-cost, useful text reader.
Innovators, personalities, heroes, and helpers — people who write about their vision loss; technologists behind important products and services; consumer and activist organizations and leaders; people living with vision loss, … Also activism – currency, voting, web services, documents, , and other technology to be improved. First topic: Bookshare.org and its founder Jim Fruchterman.

feelings, and wild card topics — this Vision Loser’s framework of safety, energy management, relationships, appreciation, and practical concerns; lessons from Vision Loser authors; cures, promises, and hopefulness; … Social justice issues of accessible currency, voting, mobility, … The investment cycle of entitlement, empowerment, and luxury. First topic: “This Vision Loser’s 5-Level Philosophy: safety, energy, relationships, appreciation, finance/citizenry”.

Readers who find this blog, please comment to share your experiences and questions. Also, check out the informative podcast links that expand our discussions.