Accessible Audio Books for Blind and Visually Impaired

By Sonali Jain, Saksham

Mass production of accessible books can eradicate the book famine faced by persons with blindness or other print disabilities.

Books are considered a person’s best companion. It is said that “When you open a book, you open a new world”. Books provide us with an endless pool of knowledge and information and allow a person to improve his / her understanding by exposing one to new things, besides being an invaluable source of entertainment.

Books have been in existence forever, but recent advancements in technology have provided us with various other alternatives to choose from besides the physical form. These include electronic books and talking or audio books.

The concept of talking book goes all the way back to 1870s when Thomas Edison for the very first time recorded the recitation of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”.

The early initiatives of producing audio books were undertaken by Library of Congress in United States and Royal National Institute of the Blind in Britain. In 1931, the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) and Library of Congress Books for the Adult Blind Project established the “Talking Books Program” (Books for the Blind), which was intended to provide reading material for veterans injured during World War I and other visually impaired adults. Not until 1952 when an upstart recording company called Caedmon Audio released Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” did people begin listening to what were then called “spoken word” recordings, which marked the beginning of commercially available audio books in the United States.. There was still the issue of limited space, which meant there were considerable abridgments that led to adaptions, and even dramatizations, with full casts, music, and sound effects.

Audio books have since then undergone tremendous amount of transition, from Books on Tape all the way through books on CD and now downloadable books.

Mobile technologies such as smartphones, tablets etc have further boosted their popularity. In India in particular, audio books on topics such as business and self help have become extremely popular.

Even though audio books are now being more widely read and enjoyed as an alternative by people in general, they have proven to be one of the most essential medium for accessing information for persons with print disabilities who include people with blindness, low vision and certain physical and learning disabilities such as Cerebral Palsy, multiple sclerosis, dyslexia and quadriplegia.

Audio books are considered a highly preferable means to provide books to persons with blindness as unlike Braille books that can go up to several volumes per book, audio books are not bulky.

The audio books are also preferred by people who lose their sight later in life and are unable to read Braille as quickly. Their popularity has further increased with advancement in technology, and one can read and carry a whole lot of books with portable digital players or even on one’s mobile phone.

As a result, audio books have also proven to be extremely important for education of visually challenged students.

The audio books are playing a vital role in addressing the challenge of dearth of books for students with blindness and reducing their dependence on human and volunteer assistance for reading. The increased availability of accessible books enhances the quality of their education, thereby enriching their knowledge, information, communication, personality and improving their employment opportunities, which allows them to lead a more meaningful life.

With innovations such as text to speech softwares, more books than ever before can be converted into accessible audio format without even the need of relying on human effort for this purpose. Digital Accessible Information system (DAISY) are the standards for creating accessible talking books. DAISY is based on web standards, and allows for creation of one master content, which can be converted easily into innumerable formats preserving the complete structure of the publication. An extremely important feature of DAISY talking books for the user is that unlike a normal audio recorded book, a DAISY talking book allows the users to navigate sentence, heading, paragraph or page-wise, thereby allowing them to access a book easily and more efficiently.

Yet surveys carried out worldwide show that less than 1% of the published information is available in alternate and accessible formats for use by persons with print disabilities.

One of the major challenges in this regard in a country like India is the diversity in language. More than 5 million blind and low vision persons speaking 22 different languages pose a tough challenge to provide books and information in accessible formats. Moreover, instead of books being produced in accessible formats at the time of publication itself, the task of making them accessible have to be undertaken by different local organisations working for persons with blindness to address the needs of their users. This not only causes considerable delay in their availability for students and other visually challenged and print disabled users, but needs of many remain unmet. Lack of resources and infrastructure for production of high quality audio books are some of the other key challenges.

A recent initiative to address some of these challenges is the launch of an online national library of accessible books known as Sugamya Pustakalaya. This online library is a joint effort of Government of India, the DAISY Forum of India and corporate support. Accessible books from various libraries across the country, along with those from some of the notable international agencies such as Bookshare and Accessible Books Consortium are available here so that users can obtain maximum content on a single platform.

Thousands of digitally accessible books across diverse subjects and languages and multiple formats are available on this library which a person with print disability can access on click of a button after registering with this library for free. These publications can be read by a user on any device of his / her choice, like, mobile phones, tablets, computer, DAISY players or even in Braille. Initiatives like these and awareness among publishers to produce more and more accessible audio books has a potential to eradicate the book famine being faced by persons with blindness and other print disabilities.