Tuesday, December 15, 2009

e-Books for the Blind

Because I suppose the publishing industry needed more bad publicity this holiday season. Copyright Owners Fight Plan to Release E-Books for the Blind
"A broad swath of American enterprise ranging from major software makers to motion picture and music companies are joining forces to oppose a new international treaty that would make books more accessible to the blind." - 'Threat Level' at WIRED.com.
Of course, nothing is ever that simple, but the lede pretty much sums it up. We've been here before. Back when the Kindle II came out and publishers freaked out when they realized it could read to you. A tornado of Brooks Brothers suits descended on Seattle and when it all fell out, the app operated only at the publisher and/or author's discretion. Opposition to the treaty is stiff and seems to mainly gravitate to copyright issues (Audio Books are big business) and the cost of producing machines that do what the blind need them to do in order to make them accessible. And let's be honest, requirements under an international treaty to provide accessibility would indeed incur additional costs for producers. (That's assuming you want to sell internationally or if the US ratifies the treaty and passes domestic laws forcing domestic producers to comply.) Requirements add cost to development. Requirements for accessibility and safety always do. I can't speak for the rest of the world, but as a nation we've generally accepted that some things are worth paying for. Nevertheless, in the US, the cost of most accommodations for the disabled (ramps, lifts, vehicle modifications, braille texts, &c.) has been borne by the individual with some help from national and local government programs. Some private assistance through NPO's and faith-based organizations help out, but in reality, the bulk of it falls on the individual. So why shouldn't the costs of a speaking e-Book reader? Or a braille monitor like David Strathairn used in Sneakers? Or any one of a thousand other things that allow the blind to operate in a world geared for the sighted? For the same reason I'm so vehemently against banning books. And for the same reason you can't charge sales tax on newspapers in the state of Washington. Because access to information is the basis of freedom and anything that imposes itself between you and that access is anathema to free thought. No one in a free society should have to rely upon the goodwill of others to give them the information they need in order to fully-participate as a citizen. As the ADA has aged and become set in our culture, a lot of manufacturers of hardgoods have begun building-in some accessibility requirements and have been able to amortize the cost of developing and producing these items over the whole consumer base rather than making them bespoke items costing the end-user thousands. It would appear that electronics such as e-Book readers are especially good candidates for working-in this sort of accessibility. (But I'm not the engineer in this family, so I could be wrong.) Kudos to Amazon for bringing out a blind-accessible Kindle with an audible menu, etc. But considering the explosion last time Amazon wanted to make the Kindle talk, we'll see how many publishers let you put out accessible books for it. Any way I look at it, this is a disheartening patch in the ongoing story of the transition from paper books to electronic ones. Posted using ShareThis

1 comment:

  1. Incidentally, a braille display similar to the one Straitharn's character "Whisper" uses in the movie Sneakers costs about $10,000. Making an e-Reader that already 'talks' read the menu to you seems like a fairly low-cost alternative. Just sayin'.


Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).