Tediousness: On Accessibility Issues Deafblind and Blind Writers Face

Sarah Katz | June 2016

Tediousness: On Accessibility Issues Deafblind and Blind Writers Face by Sarah Katz, June 2016
[Header image description: Pop art-style neon images of books, headphones, locks, and cassette tapes against an orange background, which is an enlarged image of braille text.]

“It is tedious,” says Mani Iyer, a deafblind writer currently studying in the MFA Program at Lesley University, speaking of writing on his own as opposed to working with his mentor at Lesley, Teresa Cader. “As [Teresa] read to me some of my poems, I couldn’t believe how good it sounded, in contrast to what the screen reader would read to me.”

A screen reader is computer software that transmits whatever text is displayed on the computer in a readable form, whether in braille or auditory format—in Iyer’s case, it’s the latter, which can fail to convey the nuances of poetry, he says.

Iyer has Usher Syndrome, so his deafblindness has been a gradual experience for him. He can hear through the use of hearing aids, but as he continues to lose his sight, he’s been exposed to the restrictions of technology, copyright, and the inaccessibility of many literary magazines.

Deafblind and blind readers use a range of technologies to access literature, including hardcopy braille, e-braille, screen readers, audiobooks, and ebook devices like the Kindle. Although technology is changing the way that deaf and deafblind writers access literature—braille readership is down, while screen readers are up (reports the National Federation of the Blind)—there are still kinks in both publishing and technology that bar individuals with disabilities from complete access to contemporary literature.

“I read very few poems compared to my colleagues who read books and books of poems,” Iyer says. “But Lesley understood that and they were ready to, you know, accommodate me on that so that I only read the necessary and important poems. ... That was one of the biggest problems I had, more than writing the poems—it was reading the poems.”

Writers like Iyer depend on audio, including audiobooks from Amazon Audible, Bookshare, and other book distributors, which are in greater supply than braille books because of how easy it is to produce them, says Margaret Moore, a reference librarian in the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) division of the Library of Congress.

Moore says that the NLS—which has its own collection of books separate from the Library of Congress—provides some books narrated by professional actors.

“A reader may find that a robotic voice may be tolerable for nonfiction,” she says, “but intolerable for fiction.”

Karen Keninger, who directs the NLS and is a braille reader herself, says she prefers to read poetry in hard copy braille, but that screen readers can work for accessing contemporary literature “if all you want to do is read it using Kindle or iBooks or similar readers.”

There is also a refreshable braille display, which is a device that conveys information tactilely using one row of refreshable braille cells. The dots reconfigure after a reader finishes reading the line displayed in the device to show the next line.

“[R]efreshable braille displays can readily accommodate poetry when used efficiently,” she says. “Screen readers tend to read poetry aloud without nuance or pause, making it more difficult for me to appreciate, personally. They can be controlled line by line, however, which helps.”

Adding to the issue, however, is the lack of electronic books in plain text—which one can connect to either a screen reader or e-braille device—which makes it difficult for writers to manipulate or easily research the materials in a book. John Lee Clark, another deafblind writer, detailed these issues in an interview with Divedapper editor Kaveh Akbar earlier this year.

“I think my favorite area is eighteenth-century British poetry,” he said. “But I can’t be sure if that’s my true favorite, because I do have trouble accessing modern and contemporary stuff. You see, eighteenth-century British poetry is available on Project Gutenberg. It’s in the public domain, and there are loads of accessible text files. By contrast, I am almost entirely locked out of contemporary American poetry. Lowell, Larkin, Bishop—they’re not available. I have no use for the books on the shelves in the library or in a bookstore.”

Asked by email what his take is on the Google vs. Author’s Guild case—in which the Author’s Guild has argued that Google’s electronic sharing of books in its Google Books program constitutes as a violation of fair use law—Clark says that Google Books has been a great research tool for him.

“I mean, I can’t go into a library and skim through a book to see if it has what I need. I can’t see the indexes. So the searchability Google Books offers is a great way to find books that I need for my research. It speeds up an arduous process. I typically need to have books transcribed, and this is a slow, expensive process. I don’t want to waste that on books that turn out to not be what I need.”

But what of profits for authors? Clark argues, “What profits? I can understand it if the Publisher’s Guild—that is, if there was such a thing—would be concerned. But the authors—they’re fighting Google so that their publishers can keep some money. The authors themselves, except for a few, are not making any money, anyway, individually.”

To finally access a book, he adds, “I’ll have to make sure I live for a long time—[an author] has to die, then ninety years would have to lapse first. All for what? Nobody is making any money, not even the publisher.”

Overall, “There are some drawbacks,” says Keninger of accessing literature via the current technologies, “but using a refreshable braille device paired with an iPhone, you can read the text of pretty much any book available on those platforms. This is an expensive avenue to access, however, to be sure.”

Moore says that the NLS produces primarily audio books and braille (or e-braille) books, rather than books in plain text or HTML, “although some of our reference guides and bibliographies on our website do use this format, and we are developing a new website that we hope will be the model of accessibility on the web.”

The NLS provides over thirty magazines in braille in both hard copy and electronic formats. Readers can use their Android and iOS app, BARD Mobile, to read electronic braille.

Currently, Poetry Magazine is the only major literary magazine available in braille. Other publications such as Wordgathering, which “seek[s] work that develops the field of disability literature,” offer audio versions of work, as well as readable formats.

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