Today we get most forms of entertainment at the push of a button, so we tend to hate having to wait. We gnash our teeth when our computer buffers in the middle of binge-watching Netflix, sigh when we can’t fast-forward through commercials, inwardly groan at the prospect of sitting through previews at the theater.
Books are just as easy to get a hold of as visual fun: Amazon will bring them to your door, $2.99 or less ebook sales happen every week, audible.com allows you to listen or read-while-you-listen to your purchase after waiting less than five minutes for it to download, some libraries have digital checkouts, and there’s always the guarantee that if you go to a store they’ll either have what you want or be able to order it in for you. Just keep an eye on your finances and your book supply is endless! If you’re sighted, that is.
“But you can have your phone read you a book with voiceover, or your computer with a screenreader, and some ebook readers have a text-to-speech option!” I hear some of you cry. Yes, there are blind people who read books this way, using synthesized speech through voiceover or Text To Speech (TTS) software, but this choice has major cons that outweigh getting a book on release day. All titles in the iBook store are accessible through iPhone’s voiceover, meaning those users are fine, if frustrated by iBook’s limited selection. Amazon Kindle, whose selection is much larger, utilizes TTS, the enabling of which is entirely at authors’/publishers’ discretion, who never seem to want to turn it on! (Plus, these robotic voices are sometimes hard to understand and do not sound pleasant!)
THE DARK DAYS
To give credit where it’s due, I should explain that things aren’t as bad as they used to be for blind and visually impaired braille readers. The image on the left is what the majority of physical braille books, known as hardcopy braille, look like, and as late as the early 2000s these were the only way blind people could obtain the literature we desired. Not only was something that thick rather difficult to read in bed (the paper used is thicker than regular paper so the dots can’t get rubbed out so easily), but because of the limited amount of text you can fit onto braille paper, even when both sides were utilized (which they almost always were), novels had to be spread out over several volumes. To put this in perspective, those eleven lovely tomes in the photo comprise a single 764-page book—try bringing those to the beach for a bit of light summer reading.
And as you may have guessed, these books weren’t available in stores. You had to order them from the Library of Congress, who understandably took some time transcribing the latest releases into braille, binding the books, and then making enough copies of select titles to snail mail to everyone who pre-ordered. So unless you hopped on the audiobook wagon when, say, Harry Potter mania came to a height (thanks for buying me all those tapes, Mom), you were stuck waiting for months while your sighted friends devoured chapters, and avoiding those friends if you cared about getting spoiled.
For the modern blind bibliophile, hardcopy braille—the blind equivalent to hardcopy print—vanishes from your life once you’ve used it to master the alphabet (yay!). Thanks to whoever invented electronic braille—utilized on the devices pictured below—and the generous and tech-savvy people at bookshare.org, which distributes electronic braille editions, books are now comparatively more portable and literally at our fingertips. Goodbye eleven volumes that equal one print book, hello electronic print for the blind and our version of Kindles, tablets, etc. My earliest memory of reading a book from such a device—though it had its bugs, so I wasn’t giving up those Harry Potter tapes yet—is from around 2002. Yes, that does mean that blind people got cool tech gadgets years before Apple and the like began making things for sighted consumers, just in case you were getting the impression I was spinning you a sob story. We had our perks.
Even though the Library of Congress created BARD before Bookshare came into being, for years Bookshare was our main source for reading because of its much larger collection. Only recently have BARD become a helpmate. And whenever these disability-specific resources fall behind, there’s good old Audible. If you’re wondering where the problem is, we’re getting there.
PROS of the DISABILITY-SPECIFIC RESOURCES
A Bookshare membership with unlimited downloads is free to all students and $50 a year for non-students—a reasonable price, especially as members can choose from braille, synthesized audio, and text formats. Begun in 2002, its library was maintained for five years by volunteers who scanned/uploaded whatever books they bought, but from 2007 onward it has grown, both due to the combination of these individuals’ efforts and a substantial library grant that led to agreements with various publishers to send ebooks. Those agreements now make it possible for a blind person to jump online and enjoy the luxury of getting a book on its release date. Consequently, it cuts down on having to send emails to volunteers, asking if they’ll pretty please spend their hard-earned money on books for the benefit of blind fans. These requests were often necessary on account of either a volunteer becoming disenchanted with an author/series, or an author’s works being abandoned partway for no discernible reason.
BARD is volunteer-based, with nonprofessional narrators offering their time, and the site runners using things like best-seller lists and less obvious means to broaden their stock. It’s free once you’ve verified your disability, and you can choose either digital downloads, or buy a device to access their “daisy files.” These are audio files with the ability to search and navigate by paragraphs and headings, like the flexibility in ebooks, which are playable on a computer with free downloadable software, or on a blind-specific portable device such as a Bookport. (BARD will provide their preferred player if you like—Bookports are available from the same companies that sell those electronic braille devices—but that’s getting into personal preference and usability territory.) Since a Bookport or computer works for Audible too, it’s a win-win—unless the narrator sucks, then you’re in trouble (and if your device only plays daisy files, then it’s one more thing you’re yoked to while you have another device for Audible, but again, personal preference).
HERE’S THE PROBLEM
The day Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman came out, a book by Jackson Pearce hit shelves. If you’re a blind Pearce fan, you know she’s a mid-list YA author and therefore doesn’t have many audiobooks, professional or otherwise. Bookshare would be your most likely provider, especially as it has all eight of her prior works. Lee’s hyped novel was on Bookshare the day it came out; blind Pearce fans are still waiting for her spy thriller five months later.
There are times when this sort of thing doesn’t happen: BARD or Audible might get books months ahead of Bookshare, or if all three are on the ball, you would have the luxury of choosing between, say, reading braille, or listening to two different narrators. But when the title you’ve been craving never becomes available on any of these sites, or you can’t afford Audible’s membership when a title appears solely in a professionally recorded format—a far too common reality—that’s the end of the story. Unless you want to beg/bribe sighted family members/friends to read a print copy to you.
And now you’re probably asking, “But can’t you contact these providers and tell them about the books you want?” We could, but if for whatever financial or interest-based reason a book didn’t warrant a studio’s favor, all the asking in the world won’t get you an audiobook. BARD doesn’t really allow reader requests; you can let your regional librarian know what you would like, but it’s a fifty-fifty chance as to whether or not you’ll get it.
With Bookshare it’s becoming increasingly unlikely your request will be granted, usually because people don’t understand that (1) even if the books are produced by a publisher Bookshare works with, older books are pretty much a no-go, and (2) there are publishers that don’t work with the site. Publishers will not provide copies of older releases (unless they’re turned into ebooks, and even then it’s only if the author has garnered name recognition), and volunteers may not have the money or inclination to purchase copies from Amazon and then devote a large chunk of time and manpower into scanning them. So, those fan pretty-please emails I mentioned earlier never entirely abate, now replete with assurances that this time will really be appreciated. There are volunteers who understand that second dilemma and are willing to take care of the books published by non-contracted companies, but these decent souls can only do so much. Even a single person leaving their position—as happened recently—can cause the request list to be completely backed up.
We’re at the mercy of publishers’ whims (who don’t take requests from the site), and if their author’s book isn’t supplied on release day, we can only hope they’ll find it in their hearts, months and months after the author has stopped talking about it, to give over said author’s “latest.” (Unfortunately, sometimes that never happens no matter how long we wait.) And if that book has already been uploaded by a pitying volunteer, it can get taken down and replaced by a belated publisher copy due to agreed-upon conditions, offending and sometimes alienating some of those volunteers who worked with the site since its infancy.
Personally, all of this results in a knee-jerk reaction of wondering whether I’ll even be able to get a title when it sparks my interest. I love when the wondering is unfounded, though it makes those moments when I’m forced to play a six-month-long waiting game all the more memorable and infuriating. A good book can be emotional enough without the added mixture of gratitude for the accommodations that have occurred over the past twenty years, and dismay that the fifty-fifty chance difficulty of obtaining books is a reality that probably won’t be changing soon.