Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Who decides which four percent?

Imagine not being able to read. Not being able to see the words on a page. Not being able to just pick up a book and lose yourself in it.
I do occasionally contemplate what it would be like to go blind. I have an eye condition which, if it progresses to its severe form, could leave me unable to see well enough to read even large print books.
It’s not a prospect I relish and it’s one I try not to think about very much.

Could I learn braille?
I don’t know. I imagine it’s hard to do once you’ve passed a certain age.
I had a blind friend at university whom I used to read for as critical works weren’t readily available. She had, I remember, a natty kind of tape recorder which enabled her to mark the tape so that she could find important passages easily. It was a kind of auditory highlighter. It seemed to me that the level of determination she needed to get through a degree in English when she had to rely on others to give her access to so much of the material she needed was far in excess of what the rest of us needed.

Why have I suddenly started talking about blindness?
Because I picked up this story on the lovely Juxtabook blog. In case you don’t want to read it, it’s about the need to protect the long-term future one of the most important braille presses in Britain. A campaign has been launched which is being supported by Ian Rankin who, apparently, has a son with a visual impairment.

This story told me something startling. Only 4% of books ever get produced in a form that visually impaired people can access. Four percent? That’s nothing!

And who decides? Who decides that this novel, this work of non-fiction, this reference book will be printed in braille while all the others won’t? Does there have to be a ‘demand’ and, if so, how does the blind and partially sighted community know what it should be demanding? Are people who read braille confined to ‘bestsellers’, never able to pick up something new and interesting off the obscure literary shelves, always waiting for sighted people to decide in large numbers that they think a book is good enough to warrant being produced in a braille version? Or am I being cynical.

Given the paucity of books already available in braille – four per cent, remember - I imagine I’d be panicking a bit if I was unable to read printed books and there was the prospect that one of the most important braille presses in the country was becoming more and more antiquated and out of date. I’d be worried that my supply of books was going to dwindle even further.

Seems like a good cause for book lovers to get behind, don’t you think?


Tim Stretton said...

Interesting post, Alis.

I wonder if the decline of Braille books is related to the growth of audio-books. I suspect that most of the 4% are audio rather than Braille. (Imagine being confined to the top of 4% by sales volume!).

Audio-books perhaps have more of a long-term future than Braille, if only because they also have a market among the fully-sighted community, making them more commercially viable. But that very growth in audio-books is probably the thing that threatens Braille the most. It's good to see Ian Rankin digging in on this one.

David Isaak said...

Tim's probably right--audio is pushing out Braille. Here in Southern California, the Braille Institute library system describes itself as offering "free audiobooks and braille books" (note which is mentioned first), and the Braille Press here now does both.

I generally don't enjoy audio books, simply because they move at their own speed; for me, they are an impoverished experience compared to books, and I would imagine that many Braille readers would feel the same way.

Maybe this is one of the places where a good Print-on-Demand technology could save the day?

Alis said...

David, I agree with you about audiobooks, I dislike them quite a lot as they don't allow re-reading of passages you've really enjoyed or skipping of those you're finding tedious or gory. Also the voice of the reader introduces its own 'colour' which might be different to the one I'd 'hear' if I were reading the book for myself. So I'm rooting for proper braille books. But, on the subject of print on demand, as I have no idea how braille printing works, either mechanically or economically, I don't know whether pod is available or viable.
Is anybody out there better informed?

Juxtabook said...

I have no idea about pod for braille either, so like you I am rooting for braille. Great post on the subject.