When you think of reading to a person who is blind, you might have the quaint picture in your mind of sitting in two overstuffed chairs. You are holding the book or newspaper in your lap, reading aloud, glancing over to your friend now and then to share a smile or a thought. Your friend is sitting quietly, placidly, smiling and nodding, and maybe dozing.
Now blink, and picture this. Your friend is reading that book or newspaper for herself. She is holding not a stack of pages but some kind of adaptive device. Depending on your friend’s comfort level with technology, that device could be one of several that are available to blind people who love to read.
The invention of Braille in 1825 opened wide the door of literacy for blind people. However, conditions such as diabetic retinopathy and age were barriers for many people who did not have the sensitivity in their fingertips needed to read Braille. The talking book program was launched at the Library of Congress in 1931. Books were recorded on long playing records which were played at 16 rpm on specially designed, very basic, manually operated record players. They were provided to blind library patrons through the U.S. Mail free of charge. They were delivered to the patron’s door in large containers with cloth straps that secured them. An address card was inserted into a metal frame, and when the patron was finished with the book, he would flip the address card over, which was already addressed to the regional library, buckle up the straps, and set it out for the mail carrier. I can still remember the joy I felt when I first started subscribing to this service, when I was 18. The first book I could listen to on my own was Gone With the Wind, and it came in 4 large boxes. I think my mother was just as thrilled as I was that finally, I could read a book on my own. Several years later, the National Library Service, NLS, produced many of the recordings on smaller plastic flexible disks. Gradually the records were phased out in favor of 4-track cassettes, which were played on special cassette players that allowed for 6 hours of listening per cassette. Meanwhile, audio books became available in public libraries, both on cassettes and on Cd’s. Still, the books produced for the NLS were preferable for most of us, but technology marches on, and we were soon to be enjoying the digital age.
Enter the 21st century and digital books. Now the NLS players have a slot for a cartridge to be inserted. Left and right arrows, which are tactile, allow the listener to jump ahead or back, by chapter, by section, or by time increments. Through the BARD website, computer users can download books and magazines and then transfer them to a digital reader, such as the Victor Reader Stream. It’s about the size of a deck of cards and has an earphone jack for private listening. I use my Stream for all sorts of reading material.
For reading newspapers, my technology of choice is the good old telephone. The National Federation for the Blind sponsors a service called Newsline, which is a dial-up service. Call a local number, enter your security code, choose your favorite newspaper, select the section and article, and read, whenever you like, for as long as you like. Just read headlines if you wish. Skip articles or re-reread them.
Finally, when audio is not available, the printed word actually is, through the text to speech technology that many of us use on our computers. We can access the web, communicate via email, or scan letters , into speech, and we can even text. Iphones are becoming increasingly popular with blind cell phone users, as accessibility is becoming more wide spread. Yes, we too are wired, just like everybody else. Only, instead of wearing out our eyes, we’re wearing out our ears, to say nothing of our overtaxed brains.