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Access Now: How Our Books Can Start Reaching Everyone

July 18, 2018

For many people, reading is a crucial part of their lives. The feel of a book, the smell of store-fresh or library-wisened pages, and the stories that they contain. But not everyone can enjoy books and reading in the same way. Different people face different barriers, and not everyone has access to books as we know them—why spend spoons on something that’s supposed to be relaxing?

All kinds of literacy are important to us here at WOTS, so let’s explore some ways we can make sure no one is being left behind.

Who’s left behind barriers to books?

There are many different reasons why people might not be able to enjoy print or other book mediums.

There are sensory disabilities such as vision loss, which can affect a person’s ability to see the text on a page. And make note: a person doesn’t need to lose all of their vision in order for traditional books to become hard to read.

But it’s not just vision loss that can affect a person’s ability to enjoy the latest novel. For some it can be a matter of learning or reading disabilities.Reading disabilities can make for difficulty with word recognition and speech patterns. For example, for someone with dyslexia, there are certain fonts that can exacerbate the issue, making it difficult to decipher text. Other disabilities may make it hard for individuals to process what they’re reading, making books an uphill battle that distances them from the stories they love.

There are also physical barriers.Holding books, turning pages, and carrying around thick volumes can be difficult for people with mobility or motor control issues. While the issue itself may not be with reading itself, the traditional print book can be another barrier to education and literacy for disabled people.

According to CNIB, there are at least three million Canadians with vision loss as well as a variety of learning and physical disabilities that make traditional books inaccessible to them. That’s a lot of Canadians who don’t have the option to read.

So what do we do?

Just because books can be inaccessible, it doesn’t mean that reading has to be! There are a number of options available that can ease the burden of the barriers that come with traditional publishing.

And guess what: you might already use some of them without even realizing it!

Accessible Solutions for Physical Books

For readers with partial vision-loss or reading disabilities, there are large print books. These are designed to increase readability by using fonts that are clear and easy-to-read. The downsides to large print, however, are that for longer books, the books can be too large to carry around or lift easily. On top of that, the wait for the release of a large print version can be up to six months after the original release—that is, if a large print version is ever made available.

Another option is, of course, Braille. For those who don’t know, Braille is a tactile language system that translates letters to a series of raised dots. It enables readerse with total vision loss toread by using touch instead. But, like with large print, it often takes time to translate the text into Braille and are often only available if there’s been a request for them. It can take weeks for a Braille version of the text to be available.

Audiobooks have also bridged the literature gap for individuals with vision loss. Audiobooks have been around for decades, and were previously available on cassettes or CDs. These days, audiobooks are available for MP3 download through the book publishers or through services like Audible. The change to MP3s has greatly reduced the wait time for distribution of audio versions, and the popularity of audiobooks among abled readership has made them easier to access.

However, only 7% of book titles are available in large print, unabridged audio, and Braille. That’s a small number oftitles to choose from even for people who have access to these options. If we’re going to make books accessible all-around, we need to start looking at better, faster solutions, and technology that enables us to transform inaccessible books into accessible books on request.

Digital Books

eBooks might be the solution. They’re more customizable: because they’re digital, readers can change the size and style of the font and the contrast of the font against the page, making it easier for individuals to accommodate their own needs.

eBooks can also be made to be compatible with both phones and screen readers. For people with vision loss, this is crucial—most eReaders are touch screens with no voice activation. Phones and screen readers can both use voice commands, read the words on screen aloud, and perform other functions that make up for the inaccessibility of books and enable blind people to become readers.

Even before eBooks, there were DAISY (Digital Accessible Information System) books that acted as “talking books”. These were digital books that could be played on DAISY players or a computer with DAISY software: they not only read the books aloud, but could also be navigated through voice commands. DAISY books are available on phones now and MP3 players—and there are also computerized text DAISY books, which can be used with refreshable Braille displays, screen readers, and can be printed off in large print or Braille.

How can I help?

If you’re not in the publishing world, it might seem that there’s nothing you can do to help make books more accessible. But that’s not true – there’s a lot that you can do to help make reading available to everybody!

Be an advocate! When books that you’re excited about are announced, ask when accessible versions are available. Now that you know about DAISY, eBooks, and audiobooks, you can help make sure they’re developed. If we think about accessibility early enough, then we don’t have to wait for accessible versions to become available. No more long waits!

Support eBooks! Actually check out eBooks and give them a try. Did you know that the Toronto Public Library—and many other libraries—offer thousands of check-out-able eBooks for free? So you don’t even have to buy them, if you’re not sure about them (although helping those numbers doesn’t hurt!). You don’t need to have a disability to take advantage of how easy they are to enjoy! When you’re using the eBooks, check for errors or issues that may cause problems for someone else and report them. That way, eBook quality will always be improving.

Check out your library! Libraries have a number of accessible options available. If you have large print copies of books you’re no longer reading, you can donate them to your local library branch. The Toronto Public Library has different collections for different accessibility options, including DAISY talking books and audiobooks. Find out what’s available at your local branch and suggest anything they might be missing.

Books and literature are important—and everyone should be able to be a reader. No one should get left behind when it comes to stories! Whether in publishing or outside of it, we should be looking forward with an inclusive, solution-oriented mentality.

What do you do to help make reading more accessible? What have we left out here?