Reading and Vision Loss
If you're losing your vision, one of your greatest concerns may be the possibility of no longer being able to read. After all, literacy is a key to personal independence and access to information. With today's technology, however, there is a lot less to fear. Large print books, magnification tools, braille, audio texts, and a constantly growing number of products will allow you to continue to read everything from the morning paper to the latest bestseller to your monthly phone bill.
While there are many reading tools available to you, it's important to remember that any solution means that you will have to do things in a different way. Audio books, magnification, and other options can be very effective, but may take time and patience to learn to manage.
In the end, the best approach to reading may be the hodgepodge method—that is, to try out, and mix and match, different techniques based on your own comfort level and reading habits. Not every solution is right for everyone, so do what's best for you. The links that follow will give you an idea of the variety of available reading formats.
Bigger and Better: Large Print
The most comfortable transition to reading with vision loss, at least in the beginning, is also the simplest: bigger print. Most major publishing houses today produce bestsellers and other materials in large print formats. Large print collections are available at most public libraries. Also, some popular periodicals such as Reader's Digest and a special weekly edition of The New York Times are available in large, easy-to-read formats.
For More Information:
- Doubleday Large Print Book Club. A membership service that gives you access to Doubleday publications in large print.
- Random House Large Print. Your source for books published by Random House in large print.
Lend Us Your Ears: Reading by Listening
Not many people realize that the earliest phonograph records were created specifically to provide spoken recordings for people who are blind. Recorded music came later, but recording text for use by people with vision loss continues today.
Audio books and a new generation of listening devices have been a bonanza for readers with limited vision and an increasingly popular reading option for sighted audiences, as well. Think of those people you've noticed jogging or sitting next to you on the bus happily plugged into portable cassette or CD players, iPods, or even cell phones. Any one of them might just as well be listening to Stephen King as Stevie Wonder. Indeed, almost any popular novel or nonfiction book, not to mention most general interest and trade magazines and newspapers, can be experienced in a variety of accessible, inexpensive audio formats.
Even if you've always been uncomfortable with audio technology and electronics, you're almost certain to find an option you feel comfortable with.
Talking Books is a service provided by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS). Launched in 1933 and sponsored by the Library of Congress, NLS is a national network of cooperating libraries that distributes books on cassettes to people with vision loss. These books are loaned and mailed free of charge, and are played on machines provided by the NLS program. The books come in special containers that can easily be mailed back with a free-of-charge postage card provided. To apply for this service, call (800) 424-8567, go to the NLS website, or visit your local library.
Commercial Audio Books
Available at all major booksellers, these are cassette and CD editions of commercial bestsellers read by their authors or by noted actors. Completely embraced by mainstream audiences, audio books are now so popular that many publishers release the audio version of a new title simultaneously with its print counterpart. Your local library may even have an audio book section.
Digital Audio Books
Not a physical piece of hardware at all, these are digital (electronic) files that contain the same content as conventional audio books but can be downloaded onto a personal computer. Once downloaded, these files can be listened to on the computer or transferred to a portable listening device, such as an iPod or other MP3 player.
If you're not technically oriented, the digital option may sound forbidding, but it does have advantages that make it worth exploring. The main advantage is navigation. Cassettes and CDs offer no simple way to move backward or forward in the text as you would with a hard-copy print book. Digital playback is infinitely more flexible, allowing the user to jump back or forward by chapter or page. You can even set digital bookmarks that let you find a particular passage instantly.
Here is information to help you learn more about Digital Audio Books:
- Digital Audio Books are recorded electronically and stored in files on a CD-ROM, on the Web, or downloaded to your own computer.
- They are especially designed for people who are blind or have low vision and use the DAISY (Digital Accessible Information SYstem) format.
- This format has encoded markers for chapters, subheadings, paragraphs, and other codes that help the listener navigate through the book and even to bookmark passages of interest.
- The DAISY format means that Digital Audio Books will not work on players that are not designed to play them.
- If you have a computer, you can get software that can play the DAISY format. You can also buy a stand-alone machine that plays Digital Audio Books.
- Some Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) can play the DAISY format. Look for a PDA that understands DAISY and has sufficient memory for storing your books.
- Stand-alone machines can also be small and portable and will play MP3 files and music CDs too.
Digital Audio Books can contain both text and audio files. The text portion can be displayed on a braille display or braille embosser or on a screen in larger font size. You can search the text for key words or passages. Unlike audiocassettes, you don't have to rewind or fast forward. And you can increase or decrease the reading speed without affecting the quality of the narrator's voice.
Ask these questions before purchasing a digital audio book player:
- Do you want a portable player or a software player that runs on your computer?
- If you want to use it on your computer, you will need a software player that is compatible with your computer's operating system (usually some version of Windows).
- If you want a portable player, does your PDA already support the DAISY format and have sufficient memory for storing books? Can your PDA memory be expanded?
- Do you want a player that plays CDs or a player that plays files transferred directly from your computer? Should it also play MP3, WAV, WMA file formats?
- If you are buying software, do you want a version that allows you to produce as well as to listen to books?
Looking for digital books? Here's where to find them:
Audible is the first and most widely successful source of digital books online. Here you'll find the same popular audio books that are available on cassette and CD from various publishers, usually priced at 30 percent below retail. You have the choice of simply listening to the books on your computer (this is called streaming) or you can download books in their entirety and listen to them whenever you want or transfer them to a portable MP3 player. To listen to samples of Audible books, visit www.audible.com.
PlayAway Books are ideal starters for older readers who have never used a digital audio book. Packaged to resemble print books—with artwork and jacket information reproduced on the front and back covers—PlayAway books are self-contained listening devices. (You don't need a separate device to play them.) Each PlayAway is about the size of a credit card and contains one featured selection. A set of earplugs, a spare battery, and operating instructions are included. While the list of available PlayAway titles isn't as extensive as other audio book formats, they earn points for their simplicity, ease of use, and affordability (most titles are priced about the same as the hardcover versions). To listen to audio samples, visit the PlayAway Books site.
Public libraries in a growing number of U.S. cities are now offering audio books as digital downloads online. These books are played in Windows Media Player with the assistance of a special program called OverDrive, which you can download for free. Books are generally available on loan for a two- or three-week period, just like hardcopy books, except instead of having to return the title to the library it will simply vanish from your computer's hard drive when the loan period ends. The Overdrive program lets you go forward or back just a few sentences, or you can skip entire chapters. It also allows you to speed up or slow down the narrator's pace, and will keep your place even if your computer is turned off. To find out if this service is available in your area, visit OverDrive's Digital Library Reserve. You'll also need a library card from your local library.
For More Information
- AccessWorld. American Foundation for the Blind. "Product Evaluation: Kindle for PC with Accessibility Plugin."
- AccessWorld. American Foundation for the Blind. "An Evaluation of the Milestone 312 Digital Book Player from Bones."
- AccessWorld. American Foundation for the Blind.
- AccessWorld. American Foundation for the Blind. "Product Evaluation: Read All Day with PlayAway."
Beyond Your Local Retailer: "Specialty" Digital Players and Services
Your electronics store isn't your only choice when shopping for digital hardware for reading and listening. There are a number of specialty products—not available to the general public—exclusively designed for people with vision loss. These are in many ways superior to off-the-shelf alternatives. Here are some of the more popular ones.
Bookshare.org is a subscription service available exclusively to individuals with vision loss or who have a learning disability (you must provide proof of one or the other to join). For an annual fee of $50 (plus a $25 sign-up fee), members can download to their computers their choice of thousands of copyrighted bestsellers and periodicals. (Non-members can download non-copyrighted material—classics by Dickens and Jane Austen, for example—free of charge.) Unlike other talking books, Bookshare titles are not read by human narrators. Rather, they produce synthetic speech based on the written text. Most new computers come equipped with speech synthesizer software that can perform this function. As an alternative, Bookshare.org allows you to read the text onscreen with the use of a braille display or magnifier.
Material at Bookshare.org is uploaded by volunteers—most of them blind or visually impaired themselves—and sometimes contains scanning errors. These, however, are usually minor; more importantly, Bookshare.org contains a wealth of material that is easy to access. To learn more, listen to an audio sample, or become a Bookshare member, go to the Bookshare site.
NFB-Newsline® is the equivalent of one of those vast, old-style newsstands, only this one is completely at your disposal … over your telephone. Created by the National Federation of the Blind, NFB-Newsline makes it possible for people with vision loss to read 200 different newspapers and a half-dozen magazines from any telephone. It works like this: after dialing a toll-free number and logging in with your pass code, you are welcomed by a very clear voice. From there you can use the phone's keypad to access any newspaper of your choice. With a set of easy-to-learn commands, the listening experience simulates the way most people read traditional newspapers. You can skip forward or back by section, article, or sentence. You can have unfamiliar words spelled out to you. You can speed up or slow down the reading pace. You can even skim just the headlines by phone in the same time it once took to give them the once over with your eyes. To listen to an audio sample, find out if you're eligible, and to sign up, visit the NFB-Newsline.
Radio reading services are available in many parts of the country. Simply, these services employ volunteer readers to provide—on radio—immediate, verbatim audio access to newspapers, magazines, consumer information, and other materials that may not be readily available in braille or on tape. Listeners can tune in for the day's news, features, sports, business, opinions, advertisements, and other material from newspapers and magazines. Public affairs programs are also available on many services, as are some books or story-based shows.
Radio reading services allow you to keep up on news and even the funnies.
Radio reading services are typically broadcast on a sub-carrier channel of an FM radio station. Listeners must have a special, pre-tuned radio receiver to pick up the closed circuit broadcast. Receivers are frequently loaned to listeners by the reading service at no cost.
Some services disseminate reading services programming on television over a SAP (second audio program) channel, community cable system, or FM cable service. Many services also offer live audio streaming of their programming over the internet while others offer access to archived readings through the internet or telephone dial-in system. One popular internet radio service is ACB Radio, from the American Council of the Blind; visit the site to listen to broadcasts. For more options, go to the official web site of the International Association of Audio Information Services to find a program near you.
Designed with You in Mind: Proprietary Players
While there are commercial audio players that work reasonably well for people with limited vision, at least three players have been designed specifically with the vision loss community in mind. There are no visual screens or prompts to deal with. All three are operated entirely by listening to audio cues and pressing easy-to-use keys. Check them out.
Victor Reader Stream
The Victor Reader Stream (VR Stream) is sold by HumanWare. About the size of a deck of cards, it features both text-to-speech capabilities and digital audio support. This means you can read electronic files (with synthetic speech) or digital recorded books (with human speech). This versatile device plays books in a variety of digital formats from Learning Ally [Formerly Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic (RFB&D)], and digital Talking Books from NLS and Bookshare.org. It can also play text files that have been loaded into it, as well as your favorite music. Simple to use, the VR Stream lets you place electronic bookmarks in any file and locate specific information or favorite passages quickly. It has variable speed playback, a time Jump feature, auto Sleep shutoff with multiple time settings, and a key lock feature. It uses a removable SD card for storage and allows file transfers from your PC to the VR Stream without file filtering software. A digital recorder accessed with one button allows you to record a note and play it back later. The VR Stream comes with a built-in rechargeable battery providing up to 15 hours of uninterrupted listening time. It has small built-in stereo speakers, or you can use headphones or small portable speakers that plug into the headphone jack.
The Milestone 312 is another handheld player designed specifically for people who are blind or visually impaired. Developed in Switzerland, it is sold in the U.S. by Independent Living Aids. About the size of a credit card, this portable player can be used for MP3 files of music or audio books. It can play books which have been recorded in an accessible format called DAISY (Digital Accessible Information System), which allows for easy skipping around within a book by chapter and heading. It has a built-in speaker so you don't need to buy headphones. It also has a recording device, and a removable secure digital card for storage of books and music. However, you cannot use it to listen to documents or web pages.
For More Information
- AccessWorld®. American Foundation for the Blind. "An Evaluation of the Milestone 312 Digital Book Player from Bones"
- Browse AFB's product database for descriptions of other reading devices
- DAISY Consortium. Playback Tools. Includes descriptions of various players, including where to buy them.
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