Crossroads: Rekindling the Accessible Ebook Discussion

A few weeks ago, I read a question posed by someone on Twitter that rekindled a line of thought I have had on and off for a couple of years. In essence, the question was this: "We have BookShare.org, the National Library Service, and other similar resources. Why should we care about the accessibility of eBook platforms like iBooks, Kindle, Adobe Digital Editions, etc?"

On the surface, this question, which has been posed by several people with whom I’ve been acquainted, appears to be a pragmatic one. If one digs a little deeper, however, it becomes an illustration of an alarming attitude, often an unconscious one, throughout the visually impaired community.

Before exploring that aspect, though, let’s take a quick look at just a few of the strictly practical answers that can be given to this question.

  • In general, books released in printed form are now simultaneously available in digital formats. This provides readers and students with access to material, be it for pleasure, education, or work, at the same time as their sighted counterparts. This is rarely the case with publications offered through many of the resources aimed at providing materials in accessible formats.
  • Many of the resources which provide accessible materials are understandably required to obtain medical proof of disability from their users before they are able to gain access to the content provided. Some users may be unwilling or unable to jump through these hoops, or find it a violation of privacy.
  • Some services require expensive, unwieldy, or otherwise undesirable or inefficient equipment to access their content. By contrast, commercial solutions like Apple’s iBooks and Amazon’s Kindle provide access to their content across a variety of mainstream devices, including mobile phones.
  • Some resources of accessible content, (i.e. BookShare.org), charge a recurring fee for the service. For avid readers who consume large number of books each year, this is undoubtedly a cost-efficient solution. For those who read only occasionally, however, it can prove far more costly than purchasing books from a digital retailer.
  • Many books are never made available in accessible formats through these bodies.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of practical reasons why a visually impaired user may prefer access to a digital e-book platform, but it does provide a sample of the variety of such reasons. No one solution will ever work for all users, and that must be always kept in mind when topics such as this are discussed or debated.

There is a far more important issue that this subject raises, however. It is best expressed in the form of a question: "As visually impaired people, what is it we desire most: equal access, or preferential treatment?"

Several years ago, this was not nearly as legitimate of a question. Services like NLS and BookShare provided materials that were otherwise inaccessible to those with visual impairments or other disabilities in a manner that was equivalent to public libraries.

With the ever increasing ubiquity of the Internet, the availability and usage of public libraries around the globe has fallen sharply. Research can be done far more efficiently online, where the wealth of information is virtually limitless and growing all the time. A WikiPedia article outlines the basic statistics of the decline of library use over the last twenty years. As far back as 2001, 93% of college students felt it made more sense to obtain the information they needed online than by visiting a physical library.

The majority of information online is, of course, far more accessible than the visually impaired have ever had access to in the past. Few technological advances, if any, have had such a profound impact on the quality of life for visually impaired individuals, and you will find none who would argue that point.

With the decline of libraries as a research tool has come the decline of their usage as a source of books consumed for pleasure as well. Ask yourself this: how many sighted readers do you know who regularly, or exclusively, obtain books for a local public library to read. The answer will be very few, if any. These days, most avid readers purchase books to read, just like any other form of entertainment media such as music or movies.

While the usefulness of services like NLS or BookShare.org in years passed is undeniable, their necessity is waning in the wake of accessible mainstream sources of materials such as iBooks, Inkling, and Audible.com. Though services providing accessible content to those with disabilities may still be the best, or in some cases the only, solution for some users today, we should be actively moving toward a future of equal access with our sighted peers.

It seems to me, and many others who have embraced the integrated access of Apple products, that some quarters of the visually impaired community desire equal access without equal responsibility, especially when regards written material. Do we, the visually impaired community, purchase music like everyone else? Do we buy DVD’s like everyone else? Do we pay for Coca-Colas at the corner store or our lattes at StarBucks? Why not our books as well? Is the entertainment or educational value of a novel by Stephen King or a instructional text on programming C++so low that we feel it isn’t worth as much as we pay for the latest album by Lady Gaga or a course at the local community college?

For those who may argue that, given the high percentage of visually impaired individuals with low or limited incomes, they simply cannot afford to purchase books, I have two questions.

First, what of all of the sighted individuals who are in similar circumstances? The unemployment rate continues at high levels, and I’m sure many of those who are currently facing hard times would love a treasure trove of free books at their fingertips. Why don’t we open BookShare.org or NLS up to these unfortunates?

Second, what about all the funds wasted, be it by individuals or government agencies, on access technology which is less capable than mainstream solutions? For example, the GW Micro BookSense is available in $349 USD and $499 USD varieties. It allows visually impaired users to read books in electronic format and listen to audio books or music. How is this a better value than, for example, an iPod touch, which provides the same functionality, plus Internet access, email, and tens of thousands of applications to extend its capabilities starting at just $229 USD? This isn’t even to mention the fact that the iPod touch can be connected to a Braille display, has significantly more storage, and a battery warranty that is twice the length of what users get from the BookSense. Wouldn’t money saved by integrated solutions ultimately be better spent compensating the authors of useful or entertaining books for their hard work?

Is it not the height of hypocrisy that the visually impaired community wastes not a moment in lambasting, (even suing), companies like Amazon for a lack of accessibility in its Kindle products, and yet balks at the notion that we begin moving away from having the majority of our printed materials handed over for free?

We, the visually impaired community, are rapidly approaching a crossroads. It is time to prove that we have the courage of our convictions. Will we be worthy of equal access, and by extension equal opportunities? Or will we squander the chance to put ourselves on equal footing with the sighted world by an unwillingness to move forward with society, and a misplaced sense of entitlement?

I know which outcome I’m hoping for.