One of the sessions I attended at Tools of Change was from BeneTech, which works to make books accessible to those with significant physical obstacles to reading, such as visual impairment or learning disability. Listening to that presentation, I tweeted some of it and heard back from a reader named Sassy Outwater, who agreed with some of the points and offered to school me on what blind readers need and have to facilitate their own reading enjoyment.
I know absolutely squatnada about blind readers. And so I asked a bunch of really ignorant and obvious questions, and Sassy was kind enough to humor me – as she said, “no question is ignorant or not. The more in the publishing/review biz who know, the more I get to read.”
Boy oh boy howdydamn, did she ask for it.
What do you like to read, romance-wise?
Sassy: Blame it on a short attention span, or a career where I have to
hang out with a lot of men… but I like romance when it’s woven into
something else. My preference is toward scifi/fantasy or fast-paced
suspense and mystery. I find favorites and stick with them, like
Yasmine Galenorn’s Otherworld series, or Linnea Sinclair’s Dock Five
series. That’s the other thing, I don’t often read solo books, I like
my books in series, so I can really get deep into the heads of my
characters. J.D. robb’s In Death series is another one of my
Are there authors or books you wanted that you couldn’t get?
Sassy: All the time. Until about five or six years ago, blind people often
had to wait a year or more for the Library of Congress to release a
Braille or talking book version of a book, even if it was a
bestseller. There’s nothing worse than waiting a year for a new book
in your favorite series, knowing it’s sitting on a bookstore’s shelf,
and you can’t get it! You know those conversations when you go out to
dinner with friends about the latest books or movies everyone’s raving
about? Yeah… awkward. color me clueless until a few years ago.
Now I have a variety of options for getting books. I can A: go to
http://www.bookshare.org and download a Braille or E-text copy of a
book if they have it there; B: go to the Library of Congress’ website
and see if they have it there; or C: buy an audio book if it has come
out (but with the amount I read, that adds up fast); or D: go buy the
book at my local bookstore and scan it into my computer myself. It
takes a lot of time to do the physical scanning and editing before a
book is legible though. I can even read using iBooks on my iPhone now
Do you shop in bookstores, or look for new titles there? Where do you learn
Sassy: I don’t often wander into a bookstore and browse… Just not
practical. Usually I look at online lists or reviews, or hear from
friends about a good book. If I just want to browse, I go search
bookshare.org, Audible.com, or the Library of Congress website. Kind
of limiting in a way, but I’ll take what I can get. It’s certainly a
huge improvement from the way it used to be.
The National Library Service used to send out catalogs of their books to us. We’d pick from
the meager selections, send in our lists, and be sent a book at a
time. Forget picking what you wanted to read; you had to choose from
We’ve been reading ebooks longer than the general
public. It was the way I studied in college: all my textbooks in
e-text on a CD given to me at the start of a semester. Now that
publishers are beginning to see the advantages of ebooks, my options
for reading matterial are expanding every day. Publishers and advocacy
groups for the blind and print disabled are still at odds about many
things, but it’s certainly better than it has been in the past.
Do you prefer to read in Braille or to listen to books? Or both? What other
options are there for blind readers? (I am stone ignorant when it comes to blind reader
Sassy: I usually read my books on my computer using a screen reader called
Jaws for Windows. http://www.freedomscientific.com Jaws speaks very
fast, but allows me to read hands-free, so to speak. I can start Jaws,
and go make dinner or do work, and listen to the book, but if there’s
a part I want to spell, or read slowly, I can stop and arrow through
If it’s a Favorite author or series, I download in a Brf
(Braile file) and read using a refreshable Braille display—basically
pins that pop up and down in different configurations to show me
what’s on a computer screen. It’s my equivalent of your computer
monitor. http://www.humanware.com When .I download a Braille file, I
can put it on my BrailleNote, put that in my purse, and read wherever
An embossed hard copy Braille book is often three or four
volumes or more, and humungous! Not practical for taking on an
airplane or a train. Until about ten years ago, all my reading had to
be done at home. Now, Laptop, BrailleNote, iPhone—I’m good to go. It
often takes a week or five to get a book, even a bestseller into the
bookshare or Web Braille (National Library service) online archives,
so sometimes I can’t wait and give in and buy the audio books. But I
personally don’t often fancy the inflections or voice delivery style
of some narrators, and would rather read it in my own head, but that’s
just a personal thing. There are a lot of blind readers who prefer
audio books to anything else out there. There are a ton of devices
coming out now designed to give us better access to books, including
the Victor Reader Stream, hand-held cameras that scan books on the
go… It’s mind-boggling how accessible the print world is becoming,
and I’m loving it.
What are the device options for blind/visually impaired readers?
Sassy: More than you might think. As listed above, I use Jaws, a Braille
notetaker, a laptop or netbook, an iPhone: even the e-readers like
Kindle are slowly becoming accessible. Kindle has a ways to go—the
menus are not accessible yet, but they’re trying, and that’s what
counts to me. my world has opened up in the past few years thanks to
technology. I can’t remember the last time I’ve held a hard copy book
in my hands. That’s why we constantly struggle with Congress and
publishers to enact laws giving us access to books. We’re not out to
rip off authors or publishers; we believe in paying them for their
work just as firmly as any other demographic… but we access the
matterial differently. It’s my hope that someday, publishers do a
print run of a book, and simultaneously send an E-text copy to
bookshare.org to put up on release day, so I can buy a book at the
same time as any sighted person. That’s happened a few notable times,
and it’s an amazing feeling. Even better, if e-reader designers really
get it together and make Kindle, iBooks and other e-readers fully
accessible off the shelf or with a piece of software, then that would
level the playing field even more.
How do you read the web and email? Voice software?
Sassy: Jaws reads when I’m on my computer, laptop, desktop. There’s a feature
on Apple products like iPad and iphone and iPod called Voice Over that
you can turn on to read. Jaws and Voice Over read anything from Word
docs to web, email, music.
(SB Sarah interrupts: listen to JAWS read a website aloud: BOY did this make me think about website design)
What are some of the limitations from publishers
that limit your ability to read in braille or in audio?
Sassy: I don’t know all the details of the publisher war, unfortunately. They
have a lot about it up on bookshare, or if you email them, they may be
able to give you more in depth info or direct you to someone on the
front lines. You could also check with the American Council for the Blind (ACB, or the National Federation of the Blind, NFB. To my
limited knowledge, it goes something like this:
It’s very cost prohibitive to create Braille and talking books. No
publishers have done it. Talking books are different from audio books
in that they are only available to the disabled population, and are
created using federal funding. Probably about fifty or sixty years
ago, the federal government began a library service to take care of
that. Maybe later, I don’t know. They created the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped for literature, and
Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic for textbooks and educational
In the early 90s, disability advocacy groups started pushing
publishers to offer more of their books to NLS in electronic form to
keep costs down. As you know, publishers relinquishing control of
electronic copies of their books has always been a touchy subject, and
we were the first to really light a fire under their ass to make them
do it. (So yeah, the idea of ebooks can be attributed to us blindos…
thank you very much.)
Piracy was the main topic. Library of Congress has always instituted a policy
that any subscribing patron must be medically certified as blind or
handicapped, and unable to use regular printed materials. Publishers
weren’t happy with that alone as a guarantee against theft. Having us
buy their books, at that time, was never discussed, as cost would be
astronomical (as in hundreds of dollars PER BOOK), and about
seventy-five percent of the blind population is unemployed, and on a
rather low income relative to the general population.
(SB Sarah interrupts: Have a look at this. Guess How Much I Love You, the children’s board book:
$39.95 in Braille.)
The only way for us to get books was on a lending basis, or to buy an
audio book, until about ten years ago. The battles have gotten rather
nasty at times. Publishers’ unwillingness to provide easy access to
their books has resulted in me struggling in high school and college
to have access to my textbooks, for one thing. I had to work extra
hard, and often fell behind in my coursework as I waited for my
university to scan in my texts, or fight with publishers about
obtaining readable material. What a nightmare that was!
If a publisher does not provide files, volunteers must go in and spend
hours scanning books in, and proofreading for errors made by OCR
software. Days can be spent doing one book, whereas if a publisher
provides a file, it’s instantaneous.
Since bookshare.org only accepts certain file types, so they can be
watermarked, publishers are a big part of that process, but not big
enough yet. Every book I download is prefaced by a long legal
statement describing my rights to use the book. My files are password
protected, and monitored to make sure I don’t re-distribute.
I pay a $50 annual subscription membership to bookshare.org, and download all the
books I want from the site. The rest is paid by the government and
donations. Great deal for me, thanks to the federal government, but to
be thought of as a potential criminal just because I want to read…
not so great.
Many authors I reach out to with a request they make
their books available on bookshare.org treat me as a pirate and
disdainfully reply to my message without even reading up on bookshare.org
first. Disheartening. For every snooty reply, though, there are ten
who want to help, and do step forward and push their publishers to pay
attention and get a move-on, thank Heavens.
If you don’t mind my asking, what is the nature of your visual
impairment? Can you see anything, or nothing at all? Were you born
blind? (HA – would you believe my ipad just changed that to “bling?”
hahahahah) I know there are many kinds of visual disability.
Sassy: No I don’t mind you asking at all. I had a rare childhood eye cancer
called retinoblastoma and lost my sight when I was three years old. I
have no vision at all—totally blind, in our lingo. The cancer spread
to my brain a few years ago… I have one remaining brain tumor, but
am doing very well. :-d And hahaha, yeah, I would believe the bling
thing, my iPhone does stuff like that to me, and my friends get a kick
out of my texts and emails when I don’t hear it happen. :-d Legally
blind people with some useable vision can read using something called
Zoom Text, or a CCTV to enlarge text, but they face a lot of the same
issues I do. Accessing material for them is just as frustrating, if
not more so, because sometimes their vision fluctuates, and what they
can read one day may be impossible to decipher the next.
What would you like authors, publishers, librarians and/or your fellow
readers to know about blind readers?
Sassy: Remember your blind readers when making decisions about the
distribution of your books. We are often avid readers, and we’re not
pirates. We have to medically qualify to use sites like bookshare or
Web Braille. Please work with us to provide access to your books, so
we can support you, and you can support us: one of those mutually
beneficial simbiotic relationships. Technology is our friend in this,
but you have to make the first move.
Right now, volunteers are
scanning like crazy to give me access to books, and you could
exponentially reduce their mountain of work by working with
bookshare.org and the library of Congress to provide accessible
matterials to your blind and visually impaired fans.
involved. All it takes is a scanner and some time to volunteer for
bookshare.org. If you don’t have time, please consider donating.
Authors: speak out. If you want your blind fans to have access to your
books, pester your publishers; make this your fight too. We need as
many authors to make as much of a fuss to publishers as we can get,
you are voices they hear. They can ignore our requests, but they can’t
ignore you. Speak up, please!
Librarians, most blind or visually
impaired people know about the National Library Service for the Blind
and Physically Handicapped, but as baby boomers age and lose sight,
they may come to you with no idea where to turn for their literature.
It’s your job to be informed. Learn about what the NLS offers. Keep
abreast of audio book news, and stay in contact with audio
distributors in case blind patrons do frequent your library.
And booksellers, ebooks. Use them, fight for us to use them. Piracy is
always an issue, print or ebook… and one person’s piracy shouldn’t
curtail another person’s reading rights. A little idealistic perhaps,
but very true. If we team up on this issue, then soon, every book will
be accessible to the blind and print disabled reader, and won’t that
be a miracle worth being proud of!
Now, these are the responses and preferences of one visually-impaired reader. I know there are many, many more. Are you one of them? Do you have impairments to reading books, and like Sassy do you consume books digitally using a device that makes the text accessible to you? What do you use? Where do you get your books? And what can publishers, authors, and other readers do to help?