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As the daughter of a reader with restricted vision and friends with an author in the same situation I was curious to know the challenges facing readers and authors whose vision is restricted in one way or another.  Just because a person cannot see does not mean they will not enjoy a good story but it is not simply a case of purchasing large print books. Many books are not offered in this format and those which are can be pretty expensive.

According to the RNIB Website (Royal National Institute for the Blind) the options for those of us with limited vision are varied.

Audio Books – these are available in MP3/DVD and cassette format and include newspapers, articles and, of course, novels and text books. Again it is not the case that all books are available, especially indie books where an author may be unaware of this option or unable to arrange it.

Many online stores sell Audio Books such as Amazon, WHSmith, etc. and many high-street stores offer them. Libraries often loan them they are becoming more popular as digital means of downloading are becoming wider and easier.

Braille – this comprises of a complex set of raised dots. Not everyone with limited sight knows this language and again the amount of books are restricted.

E-books – e-books are big business these days and with the rise of e-readers and apps the options for the acquisition of books available for the blind and partially sighted should increase. However it is not that simple.

Many factors are involved with sight loss and depending on the severity and cause e-books many not always be of much use depending on the cause but they have ‘levelled the playing field’. For example some sight loss involves not being able to see in black and white, or sepia and white. Some sight loss is the opposite the inability to see colours. Of course one of the major advantages of e-books is there are no printing costs and are much cheaper. Font size can be changed, and some readers do allow for changing the colour of text (Smashwords).

E-books can also be used with Text to Speech (TTS) – this is not the same as listening to an audio book. It is much more synthetic (think Steven Hawkins) however it is an option. This is what the RNIB states about Amazon Kindle in this regard-

Kindle for PC with accessibility

  • Although very popular as hardware eBook readers, Kindle is also available as an app for Windows, Mac and most mobile phone platforms. While you can read the controls with an external screen reader on some of these platforms, most of them do not allow speech access to the content of a book.
  • However, Kindle for PC with accessibility, which works on Windows computers, includes the same TTS as Kindle Keyboard for reading the content of books. You still need to have a screen reader on your PC to select and open a book, and then the built-in TTS is used to read it.
  • Kindle for PC with accessibility will read any book bought from the Kindle website, regardless of whether the publisher has turned off the TTS feature.
  • Kindle for PC with accessibility is available from the Amazon website.”

Kindle Fire

  • All Kindle Fires have text-to-speech for book content which requires sight to switch on, and so is of limited use. The Kindle Fire HD 8.9″ has two further functions called Voice Guide and Explore by Touch which, once turned on, which requires sight, allow you to find and open a book without sight too. In early April 2013 the Kindle Fire HD 7″ got a software update which gave it the same two new features.

Kindle Keyboard

In March 2013 Amazon confirmed the Kindle Keyboard was no longer part of their range. It may still be possible to buy from smaller retailers until stock is exhausted, or second hand.

As well as text-to-speech (TTS) for the content of a book once opened, which some other eBook readers have, the Kindle Keyboard also has a feature called VoiceGuide which gives access to the menus and, crucially, to the list of books on the device.

  • Amazon allow publishers to turn off TTS on their books, but this is happening less and less frequently. Information on whether TTS is available for a title is explicitly stated in the information for each book on the Kindle Store.
  • Navigation within a book is poor while TTS is running, and it is not possible to use the dictionary or search facilities.

This is what Amazon themselves told me – “As of now there are not much option available for people with low vision.

1. Voice Guide: Reads your screen actions aloud to assist with navigation.
2. Text-to-speech: The text-to-speech feature on Kindle Fire and E-ink device will read your book, blog, magazine, our newspaper out loud to you in English.

–  Explore by Touch enables special gestures you can use to navigate your Kindle Fire.

These features are exclusive to the Kindle Fire HD 8.9” model, and are currently not available on other Kindle Fire or E-ink devices.

With Explore by Touch, you can use special gestures to navigate your Kindle Fire:

–  Unlock your Kindle: With two fingers, swipe from right to left near the bottom of the screen.
–  Open the Quick Settings menu at the top of the screen: With two fingers, swipe down from the top of the screen.
–  Scroll through items in the carousel and content libraries on the Home screen: With two fingers, swipe to the left or right
–  Turn pages in a book: With two fingers, swipe to the left or right
–  Download or open an item: Double-tap
–  Make menu selections onscreen: Double-tap

I’ve also forwarded your comments to our concerned departments as a feedback and valuable suggestion. So that they can look into this and if possible come up with a more feature/option for people with low vision.

We have a dedicated team working relentlessly to implement the feedback back we receive. We’ll consider your feedback as we plan further improvements. We’re regularly working on improvements to your Kindle experience.”

So unless you have the accessibility feature app then it looks like Kindle may not be suitable.

From RNIB website: iBooks

  • iBooks is available on the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch. All three are touch screen devices with a built-in screen reader called VoiceOver.
  • VoiceOver will allow you to buy books from the iBookstore, browse the books on your device, and open and read them. You can read a book from start to finish with a single gesture, or read by line, word or even letter if you want to check the spelling of a word. Facilities like dictionary definition, search, highlight and annotation are also accessible.
  • Adobe Digital Editions 2.0 is available for Windows PCs and Macs. It works with most recent versions of screen reader on both platforms, although support is best with JAWS on Windows XP and above, and NVDA on Windows Vista and above.
  • Adobe Digital Editions 2.0 is available from the Adobe Digital Editions Home website.
  • A lot of online bookstores and libraries provide books that can be read with Adobe Digital Editions.
  • The Kobo app for iPhone and iPod touch (but not for iPad) works with VoiceOver. It’s possible to read up to one chapter with a single gesture. The Android Kobo app also works with the TalkBack screen reader, but you can only read one sentence at a time.
  • The Nook app for iPhone, iPod touch and iPad is the latest to be launched, and it works with VoiceOver. You can read one character at a time. There is also contains an accessibility tutorial giving useful tips on using the app with VoiceOver.
  • All Kindle Fires have text-to-speech for book content which requires sight to switch on, and so is of limited use. The Kindle Fire HD 8.9″ has two further functions called Voice Guide and Explore by Touch which, once turned on, which requires sight, allow you to find and open a book without sight too. In early April 2013 the Kindle Fire HD 7″ got a software update which gave it the same two new features.
  • In March 2013 Amazon confirmed the Kindle Keyboard was no longer part of their range. It may still be possible to buy from smaller retailers until stock is exhausted, or second hand.
  • As well as text-to-speech (TTS) for the content of a book once opened, which some other eBook readers have, the Kindle Keyboard also has a feature called VoiceGuide which gives access to the menus and, crucially, to the list of books on the device.
  • Amazon allow publishers to turn off TTS on their books, but this is happening less and less frequently. Information on whether TTS is available for a title is explicitly stated in the information for each book on the Kindle Store.
  • Navigation within a book is poor while TTS is running, and it is not possible to use the dictionary or search facilities.

http://www.rnib.org.uk.

http://www.rnib.org.uk/eyehealth/eyeconditions/Pages/eye_conditions.aspx

http://www.actionforblindpeople.org.uk/resources/about-sight-loss/eye-conditions/

Below follows an interview with a visually limited author: Victoria Zigler, who has written a goodly selection of books for children.

Hello and thanks for joining us. Please introduce yourself and tell us a little about your books.

“My name is Victoria, but you can call me Tori if you like; most people do! I’m a blind author of children’s books and poetry.”

Other than writing what do you like to do? (Hobbies etc)

My main hobbies are reading and writing, as well as spending time with my hubby, Kelly, and my furbabies: a West Highland White Terrier named Keroberous, and 4 degus named Jacob, Jasper, Jenks and Joshua.  Before you ask, a degu is a rodent with a similar appearance to a rat with a furry tail, but which is more closely related to chinchillas and guinea pigs.  I also enjoy watching movies and some TV shows (I’m a sucker for a good kids’ movie), listening to music, doing crafts (mainly cardmaking, knitting and making models out of clay), roleplaying games like Dungeons And Dragons, figure games like Classic BattleTech and Monsterpocalypse, most things to do with animals and nature (I just don’t like spiders and creepy crawly bug things) and some parts of history (especially stoneage and Egyptian history).

What are the challenges you face as a visually limited author and how do you overcome them?

I lost my sight about five years ago to the Glaucoma I’ve battled since my birth.  This means that not only are things my lack of sight stops me doing frustrating in general, but my memory of being able to see to do some of them makes me more frustrated still.

The most difficult part is cover creation: it’s hard to design something you can’t see.  Luckily I’ve got a great hubby and a couple of awesome cover designers willing to help.  I come up with the design and describe it for the cover designer I’m using for the cover in question, then they do a rough version, which I show to my hubby.  He then describes the cover to me, and I either tell the cover designer what they didn’t get right or that I think it’s fantastic.  Usually my descriptions combined with the cover artists’ talent means we get it right first time and I just end up giving the approval for the final draft to be created (which is also approved by hubby before being accepted by me as the final cover).  It’s a longer process than just being able to approve the cover myself would be, but it works.  The frustrating part is, if I still had my sight I could do it myself… I used to make animated signatures before my sight started getting really bad.

The other really frustrating thing is site navigation.  With Smashwords it’s not an issue; they keep things so simple I can use their site pretty easily.  Amazon is another matter though! I actually recently decided to no longer publish directly to Amazon because of it… Not just because the site is hard to navigate as such, but because they made me feel as if they didn’t care about my struggles when I was trying to contact them over something.  I didn’t mind having to have my hubby help me publish my books on Amazon, but I did mind working directly with a company who made me feel the issues I had with navigating their site was my fault.”

 In what forms are your books available?

My books are available as ebooks in all formats Smashwords offers.  I make sure all the boxes are ticked to ensure accessibility.  Smashwords then distributes them to other retailers where they sell them in their preferred formats, but it still ends up being the same formats Smashwords offers, it’s just that only Smashwords offers them all.

What are your thoughts on the choice of e-readers and apps, or lack thereof, which cater for readers with limited sight? If you own an e-reader which do you use and why?

I think the options for apps and eReaders is pitiful.  I own a Kindle Keyboard 3G, because it’s the only eReader with speech.  There’s an app that Apple now does that is meant to be accessible too, but I don’t know how well it works for people who are actually blind as I don’t know anyone completely blind who has tried it.  Actually, I don’t know anyone who has tried it in general, but the R.N.I.B. seem to think it’s great (a lot of their stuff only works as low vision aids though, so I’d like to know more about it personally before agreeing it works for someone completely blind).  My Dad got a Kindle Keyboard and I tried his out so knew I could work that one, hence it being the one I brought.  I was very annoyed when I learned Amazon appears to have stopped making it and seems more interested in making touch screen HD eReaders, which are about as useful to me as a bucket with a hole in it! All other eReaders we looked at either don’t work unless you have great sight or will only work for people with just low vision but not for someone completely blind.  Basically, it means if my Kindle dies and I can’t find one on eBay I have to hope that Apple app is as good as it claims to be or I have a whole lot of books that aren’t any good to me! And, if you’re interested, my computer’s screen reader doesn’t work with the Kindle app for the computer, so that isn’t an option for a backup plan.  I wish people would stop making modern technology so difficult for blind people to access!”

What can other authors do to provide their books in a blind-friendly format?

Publish your books in as many formats as possible, make sure you allow text to speech to be enabled if publishing via Amazon (or anything else that gives you the option to enable it or not) and don’t rely on the pictures to tell the story: by all means add pictures if you like, but if they’re the only way you know something then your visually impaired reader will miss out (especially those of us who are completely blind).  Also, bear in mind that a poorly edited book is more noticeable than normal when being read out loud, and screen readers will struggle with it, which means it’s very important to do all you can to catch those typos!

When reading for pleasure what format of books do you use? (Braille/audio/etc.)

Until I got my Kindle I mostly listened to audiobooks, because Braille books are so bulky.  But now I mostly read books on my Kindle, with audiobooks thrown in from time to time.  I would still focus on audiobooks, but they’re often ridiculously expensive, and Braille books aren’t all that much cheaper!

Do you think the choice of books is limited? Has the choice increased in recent years especially with the rise of e-readers and audio books?

The choice is very limited.  Several times I’ve given a title a miss because I can’t get it an an accessible format.  It’s not quite as bad now there are ebooks, but it can still be very difficult to get hold of a book in an accessible format, and – if you have to get an audiobook or Braille book – can often be quite painful on the pocket too!

What would you suggest publishing companies (such as Amazon and Smashwords) do to increase their choice and marketing of such books/devices?

I think anyone who publishes books or makes devices for them to be read on needs to remember that sometimes simple is best.  Something might look fancy, but all these fancy touch screen and HD machines actually make it more difficult for the visually impaired to use them.  By all means make versions with all the bells and whistles, but make sure you also have a basic version that the rest of us can use too! Smashwords does well by offering their books in basic formats like txt and rtf, so that’s a step in the right direction.  I think they should make it compulsory to provide your book in all formats though, and other places that sell ebooks should follow suit: it’s disappointing when you spot a great title only to find out you can’t read it.

What other advice can you offer to readers and authors with restricted vision?

Don’t let your lack of sight get in the way of your reading or writing! There are ways around all the hurdles of publishing if you want to find the ways, and there are books you can read out there: not as many as there are if you can see well enough to read ordinary print books (and not as cheap usually either) but they’re there.

Website: http://www.zigler.co.uk

Smashwords: http://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/toriz

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Victoria-Zigler/424999294215717

Twitter: https://twitter.com/VictoriaZigler

Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/toriz

A selection of Tori’s books…

Waves of Broken Dreams

http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/339488?ref=ALB123

The Great Tadpole Rescue

http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/329413?ref=ALB123

Kero Gets Sick

http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/324875?ref=ALB123

Kero Celebrates His Birthday

http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/319037?ref=ALB123

Kero Goes Walkies

http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/312873?ref=ALB123

A Magical Storm

http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/303746?ref=ALB123

The Pineapple Loving Dragon

http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/260695?ref=ALB123

The Light of Dawn and Other Poems

http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/291563?ref=ALB123

Toby’s Special School

http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/281507?ref=ALB123

Toby’s Games

http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/271594?ref=ALB123

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