Sunday, March 11, 2001

Standards to make eBooks accessible to all




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        Many inventions that most of us have come to take for granted were initially designed as solutions to problems experienced by people with disabilities. The telephone, ironically, was Alexander Graham Bell's attempt to help his deaf wife.

        Among the intended purposes of the gramophone, as declared by Thomas Edison in applying for its patent, was to read books for the blind.

        Indeed, the capability of recording the human voice affected the launch of a federally funded program of talking books for the blind, introduced by the Library of Congress in 1933. Since the late 1960s, the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, a division of the Library of Congress, has distributed its books not only on long-playing records but on audiocassettes to patrons with visual, learning, and physical disabilities throughout the United States and its territories.

        Of course, talking books are no longer the secret domain of people with disabilities. Commercial recordings of best-sellers are now frequently released simultaneously with the print editions. Audio books are, in other words, now commonly enjoyed by people with and without disabilities.

        In 1948, a Princeton, N.J.-based non-profit organization was founded to assist blinded World War II veterans in returning to college. Since that time, Recording for the Blind, Inc. has been the largest distributor of textbooks in recorded format. Realizing that more than 50 percent of its clientele were students and professionals with learning disabilities, the organization changed its name in 1995 to Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic.
       

Appearance of eBooks

        In 1985, a Montana English teacher who was losing his sight, discovered an aptitude for computers and switched careers. In his graduate studies, George Kerscher struggled with complex texts on piles of cassettes, rewinding and fast-forwarding to locate specific passages for his course work. When he met the author of a manual on MS-DOS, the idea of requesting the original text on a floppy disk struck.

        Mr. Kerscher wrote letters to publishers requesting files and was initially discouraged by the disks he received. They were filled with unintelligible “garbage.”

        Then, in 1986, on Christmas break from his graduate studies, he pulled the “garbage” up on his computer, scrutinized the accompanying textbook under a closed-circuit television and began working out the puzzle.

        “It took me three weeks to write the program,” he recalls, “and 10 seconds to run it.” For the first time, he was reading a book through the synthesized speech on his computer.

        With copyright permissions, Mr. Kerscher set up a non-profit organization and distributed computer manuals and related materials on floppy disks to blind people around the world from 1988-91. Today, as a senior officer for Recording for the Blind and chairperson of the board of directors for the worldwide Open eBooks Forum (OeBf), he is one of a host of people pushing for the adoption of standards that will be used for commercial production of electronic books.

        Public interest in electronic books has soared as the LCD screens on laptops and notebook computers have improved and as Palm Pilots and other personal data assistants have become more sophisticated. The key in passing standards at this point is in ensuring that eBooks designed for such devices will also be usable by people with disabilities.

Standards coming

        Mr. Kerscher and others are certain at this point that a universal set of standards is about to be adopted by both the National Information Standards Organization and the DAISY Consortium (an international consortium of organizations developing digital books for the blind.)

        In October, thousands of existing titles available from RFB&D are scheduled for release in digital format. Instead of say, 40 cassettes containing five books, a student will have five CDs, each holding up to 45 hours of audio reading. The digital material can be bookmarked and located as rapidly — or more so — than printed text. Students with learning disabilities will be able to both hear the text and see it on the screen, a proven enhancement to comprehension.

        For anyone who loves to read, the transition from tree books to eBooks is fascinating. The added bonus is that, for once, it looks as though people with and without disabilities will actually be on the same page.

       Contact Deborah Kendrick at 673-4474; fax: 321-6430; e-mail: dkendrick@earthlink.net. Cincinnati.Com keyword: Kendrick.
       

        Information
        • Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic, www.rfbd.org
        • The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, www.loc.gov/nls.

       



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