Áine Kelly-Costello, Focus Editor
As another turbulent year winds down, I hope that you can spend time with good friends or loved ones and enjoy some time to recharge. If you want to, I hope you can curl up with an excellent book and get lost inside. What you choose to read should be up to you, which is why having equitable access to books for our blind community is crucial. Here are some anecdotal reflections on where we’re at on that front, where we may be going backwards, and a sampling of the large variety of blind-friendly reading access options internationally.
Setting the scene
I’m 27 years old and blind from birth. I’ve lived pretty much all my adult life, and some of my childhood, with an extensive collection of books in an accessible format to me available for my perusal on demand. This is largely because I’m a smartphone native, and came of age just as e-books, and some years later audiobooks, went from a niche that blind people especially pushed for and relied on, to a mainstream option. I’m comfortable downloading and using a variety of apps and reading catalogues so the chances I’ll find my book of choice *somewhere* are high. I’ve also been able to read Braille from a young age, opening up access to reading by touch, in my own time. But we know this ready book access reality I’m describing doesn’t currently apply for many folks in the blind community in Aotearoa.
What’s happening with the BLVNZ Library?
Dating back to the early 1900s, what is now the Blind Low vision NZ (BLVNZ) library has been a mainstay of book, magazine and newspaper access for our community. This has been predominantly through audio narration but also includes hard-copy Braille, large print, twin vision (print and Braille side by side) and e-books.
Efforts are made to include books relevant here in Aotearoa, and the library also has a growing collection of books in te reo Māori, including some to help with learning the language.
While the book selection is impressive and continues to expand, it’s not much use if accessing it is difficult. For those who aren’t as at home as I am on a smartphone, BLVNZ’s is now providing library users with an Amazon Echo smart speaker and strongly encouraging reading via its Blind Low Vision NZ Alexa Skill. But Blind Citizens NZ has repeatedly heard from members that they’re not finding Alexa to be the easiest reading partner to get on with, that the Echo isn’t a portable reading solution, and that they’d like the previously widely-used DAISY players back. BLVNZ, however, says that receiving USB sticks with books for use in DAISY players is only an option to people who don’t have internet access. This excludes everyone who is online but currently struggling with Alexa.
The organisation is aware more options are needed. At the BLVNZ AGM on 2 December, the Board advised that trials of a battery and solar-powered talking book player, known as the Envoy Connect, would be starting here early next year. Many libraries now also connect to another portable and WIFI-enabled book player manufactured by Humanware, called the Victor Reader Stream. The Stream lets you read e-books and audiobooks, listen to podcasts and music, and even record. I know quite a few of us in Aotearoa already own one and it would be great if the BLVNZ library was added so that we could also download its books onto the Stream.
Once you have registered with the BLVNZ Library, other options for accessing its contents include:
- Requesting hard-copy books, including Braille, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
- Finding and listening to books online at https://apps.blindfoundation.org.nz/booklink/web/#/ and
- Using the EasyReader app on iOS, Android or Windows.
Outside of BLVNZ’s offerings, there are numerous other reading access options, both regarding what devices you read on and also where you source books. Like the BLVNZ library, many book sources give you quite a bit of choice about which device you use as well. Here’s a selection of examples.
Bookshare is the largest and most established international online library for people with a print disability. There’s a flat annual subscription fee of $50USD which once paid, opens up access to its entire selection which, according to its *about* page, currently comes in at 1,168,867 books. The reading options are extensive and most books are available for download in multiple formats including Word, BRF (Braille Ready Format–good for Braille notetaker users), DAISY and more. Unlike the BLVNZ library which focuses on audiobooks, Bookshare’s primary offering is e-books.
You can read the books on a computer (either online or downloaded), on a smartphone, using a Braille notetaker, or with any book reader which supports DAISY books including the Victor Reader Stream. Bookshare also has an Alexa Skill, but so far, Bookshare says that’s only available to amazon.com customers based in the US.
Global Book Service
Aotearoa has signed up to an international agreement called the Marrakesh Treaty which makes it easier to produce books in accessible formats without being blocked by copyright restrictions. As part of this, the Accessible Books Consortium hosts the Global Book Service, through which you can access an expanding catalogue of e-books, audiobooks and Braille music scores from participating libraries, which includes BLVNZ. This collection is a good bet for international titles including thousands in French, Spanish and other languages.
The registration process is done online and requires BLVNZ to certify that you’re a member of its library. Sign up at https://www.abcglobalbooks.org/create/account/request
Kindle, Audible, and other mainstream options
While I’m loath to recommend giving your money to the corporate monopoly which is Amazon, it’s a key mainstream provider of books which does mean it gives you instantaneous access to that latest best seller or to a first-time author self-publishing on Kindle. There are a range of accessible options for reading its e-books and audiobooks alike on a PC, a smartphone, via Alexa, or on Amazon’s own products including a Kindle and Fire tablet – both of which make use of Amazon’s built-in screen reader VoiceView. Both Kindle (e-books) and Audible (audiobooks) also have various pricing options, from single book purchases to subscriptions.
Apple Books and Google Play Books are similar to Amazon’s e-book and audiobook offerings, though they focus more on purchasing books outright. In addition to using their respective smartphone apps, Google’s audiobooks are accessible via a Google Nest Speaker.
Another mainstream option, which for screen reader users I’d recommend predominantly for its very good international audiobook offering, is Scribd. This is a subscription service available online or via its smartphone apps, which also gets you access to e-books, magazines, sheet music and more. On the iOS app, I find myself using it only for its audio content.
Read e-books and audiobooks from your local public library
If you have a smartphone or PC and are up for getting a slightly more complex, but ultimately fairly usable application set up, you can access an extensive range of e-books and audiobooks free through your city’s public library.
This takes a bit of setting up, but has the advantage of providing a better selection of Aotearoa-specific as well as international books, including a lot of very recent ones, for free.
To get set up, you’ll first need to join your library to get a library card. Depending on the library, that may be doable online, or you may need to visit in person and bring some ID. Next, download an app called Libby, on your smartphone or PC. Alternatively, you can read a book in your web browser directly by Googling “Overdrive” and the name of your library. Either way, you’ll then use your Library card barcode number to join.
The system then functions as a lending library, in that you can borrow a certain number of books, usually for up to four weeks, and when that period expires, the e-books or audiobooks will disappear off your device and return themselves to the virtual library.
Another accessible app with e-books and audiobooks available through the library system is called BorrowBox. It’s got a smaller selection than Libby, at least through Auckland Libraries, but it has a lot of Australian content and some from Aotearoa too, which in my experience can be challenging to locate elsewhere.
Calibre Audio is an online audiobook library based out of the UK but available worldwide to anyone with a print disability. It’s accessed at calibreaudio.org.uk/. You can download or stream from its collection of over 14,000 audiobooks, either on a PC or via third-party applications like Dolphin Easy Reader or Libby. This is a library service where you can borrow four or five books for three or four weeks (the details vary depending on how you listen). Its website says overseas members pay a fee (£3 per month or £30 per year), though at least some people in Aotearoa with accounts, including me, are able to stream and borrow books without issue and have thus far not been prompted for payment.
Incidentally, as with the Global Book Service, it’s thanks to Aotearoa having signed up to the Marrakesh Treaty that we can access this library.
A library of friends
Booklovers, sighted or not, have borrowed books off of each other since time immemorial. When it comes to swapping anything digital, which after all is often the only way we as blind people have access to a book, the topic is a bit taboo in the public arena. Many authors are understandably wary of its effect on their hard-won income.
Helping authors, especially lesser-known ones, to earn a living from their craft matters, yes, but so does pushing back against accessibility and cost barriers that limit our community’s informal access to great books, in ways that sighted people passing around their dog-eared hard copy versions couldn’t–and wouldn’t–ever be penalised for.
This summer, hopefully a spot of leisure reading is on the agenda. If you’re struggling to figure out how you can connect with books again, or can’t figure out how to access that exact book you’re after, another Blind Citizens NZ member or a blind friend might just be able to help you out. Let’s hope that blind people’s equitable and convenient access to books, and indeed to magazines, news media and the rest, only increases from here.