The Marrakesh Express won’t take us to the end of our journey

As I’ve blogged previously, I’m pleased to have played a part in starting the journey back in the early 1990s that has ultimately led to the formulation of the Marrakesh Treaty. This significant international agreement, a triumph for all those involved in the delicate negotiations, will facilitate the sharing of accessible format material across country boundaries.

Accessible formats, such as hardcopy Braille and audiobooks, are time-consuming and expensive to produce. So if accessible format producers can share their material more readily, then hopefully it will cut down on wasteful duplication, where the same book is rendered accessible in multiple countries.

I’m a staunch supporter of the Treaty’s ratification, and remain frustrated and a little ashamed that New Zealand is still equivocating and pontificating on a matter that is a no brainer.

But in this post, I want to talk about the future of specialised book producers for the blind in the context of today’s technology, and whether we should be working towards the eventual abolition of such services. Even thinking such a thing will be considered heresy by some, but hear me out.

Let’s look at where we are today in historical context. Accessible format producers were a necessity at a time when hardcopy print was the only way in which sighted people were consuming books. When books began being transcribed into alternative formats, a practice that predates even Braille, there was absolutely no way for a blind person to access the version everyone else was using.

With the advent of recording technology, there was a new way to make the printed word accessible, reading it out loud to blind people and distributing the recordings.

For decades, making an alternative version of a published work was the only option, but things started to change in the ’70s. The Optacon was a device years ahead of its time. It allowed those with an aptitude for raised print to place a camera on a sheet of paper and have the print on the page converted into raised print on a tactile array.

Some of us got another tantalising taste of the future in the late 1970s with the Kurzweil Reading Machine. It’s price put it well beyond the reach of all but the very wealthy, but some institutions for the blind, my school among them, had one in their library.

This remarkable device, built like a washing machine and sounding like a jet engine when you switched it on, gave blind people with access to it the ability to take a print book from the library, or buy a book from a book store like anyone else, and read it using synthetic speech. At last it was possible to read a book the same day it came out, just as a sighted person could.

That technology has become smaller, cheaper, faster and more accurate over the years, to the point that it’s now available for less than $100 on a smartphone we can carry around in our pockets.

In yet another example of blindness technology leading the way, blind people were carrying small devices around with us that we called note takers, long before the arrival of the PDA or smartphone for sighted people. Thanks to the imagination and ingenuity of people like Judy Dixon, blind people were downloading books for reading on portable devices in the late 1990s. Those books were Braille files, a fortunate by-product of the computerisation of the production process.

Now it’s 2016, and we live in a very different world. Sighted people have caught onto the value of audiobooks. The audiobook market is a growing, lucrative one. Sighted people have also caught up to the blind in that they now read books on electronic devices. It’s common for new books to be released electronically on the day that they’re released in hardcopy, and that’s a huge game changer. Without any kind of modification at all, through platforms like iBooks and Kindle, the same books produced for the sighted market are accessible to us as blind people, provided we have a device that will support such content and the skills to use it. So the fundamental reason for the creation of special format producers in the first place has started to be eliminated.

Blindness-specific producers have coined a phrase during lobbying for the negotiation and ratification of the Marrakesh Treaty. They talk of a “book famine”. I don’t quibble with the term, since only a fraction of the books that are published are made accessible by the world’s accessible format producers. But while the Marrakesh Treaty will result in a welcome opening up of borders and hopefully reduce duplication, it will not end the book famine. Even if we eliminate all duplication of published works among accessible format producers, the vast majority of titles will still not be made accessible through such organisations. The way to end the book famine is for the blind community to work towards the elimination of all blindness-specific producers, and instead require publishers to do the right thing and ensure that everything they publish is available accessibly. Almost every book published in the world today ends up on a computer at some point in the process, even if the author her or himself handwrites the material. Books already published are a greater challenge, but there’ll be an increasing demand for sighted people to read older material via their tablets too, and we can be the beneficiaries of that demand.

The kind of change I dream of isn’t going to happen overnight, and may not even happen ten years from now. But it should be what we’re all working towards. Instead of the large amounts of money spent on making a tiny fraction of the world’s books accessible, we could be spending a fraction of that money on giving blind people devices that allow them to access the world’s books in an accessible format. That includes high-quality text-to-speech, narrated audio, and Braille.

I don’t believe that if that day comes, such a device would be an iPad or Kindle as we know it today. Touch screens are not impossible for blind people to use, but they pose challenges for some, particularly the elderly who may be experiencing the consequences of multiple disabilities including dexterity issues. And let’s not forget that the vast majority of the blind population have gone blind later in life, and are over the age of 80. So I’m not suggesting something so heartless as closing down the blindness library services, handing out iPads and leaving people to fend for themselves.

I believe that touch is a transitionary interface between the traditional keyboard and what is coming next, truly effective voice control. Look at what a device like today’s Amazon Echo can do, and you can imagine that in 10 or 15 years from now, an older blind person with no assistive technology training at all could be given a device which they can control with intuitive, conversational voice commands.

Text-to-speech will continue to improve, so the lines between a well-narrated audiobook and an eBook read by TTS will become more blurred. There will always be a market for a dramatic reading of a book, but the market extends well beyond blindness. An audiobook publisher may well be willing to pay a handsome sum to blindness agencies for the audiobooks they have produced, so they can continue to be available to blind people and others via a mainstream service.

This may all mean that, while there will always be a place for libraries, we will have to get used to paying for more books. I personally have no difficulty with this. I can’t see any philosophical justification for people being given free books just because they’re blind.

In many countries. Libraries for the blind are funded by charitable donation. This isn’t the case in the US, where they have the wonderful NLS programme. But for the majority of us, we have no right to read, we’re charity cases. That right to read will only be secured when publishers take responsibility for making everything they publish accessible. When that happens, I’m quite happy to buy my books rather than be the recipient of charity.

Some of us are living this reality today. I very seldom use our library for the blind, because most of what I want to read is available to me via iBooks and Kindle, books which I buy. It’s empowering and liberating to be able to read so many books the moment they come out, when sighted friends, family and colleagues are still talking about them. A library for the blind, even with the Marrakesh Treaty, won’t be able to deliver in that kind of a timely manner, unless they source the book from the publisher. In that case, we may as well work towards a framework where we cut out the middle man and source from the publisher as consumers.

The Marrakesh Treaty is an absolute necessity for the way many blind people consume books in 2016. In the short to medium term, accessible format producers will have an important role to play. But the boards of blindness agencies conducting long-term strategic plans, and consumer organisations thinking about the future, need to be careful not to settle for a mode of accessible format delivery that has outlived its usefulness, just because we’ve always done things a certain way. I look forward to the day when every book is accessible as a matter of course because publishers have faced up to their responsibilities. Only in that way will we truly see an end to the book famine.

In the meantime, let’s all do everything we can to get the Marrakesh Treaty ratified if we’re in a country that hasn’t yet done so.

4 Comments

  1. Bruce Toews

    Very well said. There will need to be more innovating, particularly in the area of textbooks, before such a reality can be achieved. Things like diagrams, maps, complex visual charts, and so on, still need specialized handling, and complex mathematics, while more mainstream accessible than it once was, still has a very long way to go. What you say is correct, and I agree with everything you say.

  2. Mike Cole

    Talk about going against the grain, I have not purchased books yet; I am old, I’m still grumbling about the touch screen world, but here’s one you’ll really hate, I have little fire in my belly about acquiring new hot books; hey I’m not interested in TV audio described or not. I know, terrible, but you know there is a love thing about touch screens, so I guess I’m contrarian about it, but I did finally buy an I-Phone. Boy do I complain about that, it’s hard; computing was supposed to become easier. It’s highly layered in ways I’ve not begun to understand, but this love guys, drives me a little nuts, but then I am cynical about the way peple cheer at TED talks, settle down people, curb your darned enthusiasm to borrow a phrase. NLS and Bookshare has been taking care of me, streaming and Podcasts are permitting me some freedom I could only have dreamed about, but of course we need to have Jonathan cutting the debris aside, forging on ahead, I know we will all benefit from the good fight. And hell, I’ll learn the phone, complaining motivates me in a strange way. Hang in there friends. Of course the more availability to materials the better. I promise to give some thought to just how we access materials. We do have massive unemployment, free materials still have a place I’m afraid.

  3. Dave

    As much as I too love reading books, I have no interest in collecting them. I have spent thousands on digital books that I am unlikely to ever read again, can’t sell or recycle. Imho what I really want is public libraries to be fully accessible. I believe free access to books is a basic human right.

  4. Kelly Pierce

    I live in Chicago and pay taxes to my state. The University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, which is taxpayer supported, has one of the world’s largest libraries with more than ten million volumes. As a blind taxpayer, I paid for the purchase and continue to pay for the ongoing storage of these books. The university and other schools through financial support from Google has scanned millions of these books, which can be accessible to a blind person with a screen reader. The Author’s Guild battled this effort in court and lost. Soon, blind people in the United States will have access to this treasure that they in part paid for with their taxes. Blind people in New Zealand can have access if their country signs the treaty and does not include the commercial availability poison pill.

    Sighted people through inter-library loan can obtain books from university libraries. Blind people should also have the same level of access to books at these libraries.

    Also, the digital rights management scheme found in commercial digital books often presents navigation and usability barriers. When you use the word “should” Jonathan, you don’t explain who would enforce the accessibility standards against digital book producers. Do you want the right to file a lawsuit against an author or publisher who does not meet digital book accessibility standards? This describes a Marxist state not a capitalist one where discovery and innovation are rewarded.

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