Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Forgotten Reader

Books are made for readers and, for an author to be successful, s/he needs many readers, millions of readers. No stone is to be left unturned to turn these readers towards a specific book. One stone is seldom considered in this rush for readers -- the blind.

Someone commented on my Facebook page yesterday that he couldn't buy the paperback version of my latest novel because he was blind, but would like a link to the ebook. I thought he was making a joke. After all, an ebook is virtual print and still a printed book. He wasn't joking. He wanted to download the book to his reading machine in order to convert it to Braille or to speech. Abashed and embarrassed, if sent him the link for Smashwords to download whichever digital version would work with his machine.

As we chatted more, I realized I would have to find someone, or buy the right equipment, to record my novel as an audiobook. There have been plans for the audiobook for a while, a couple of months at least, but it costs money to do it right. I cannot afford a big name actress or voice over artist, and will likely end up recording it myself. The book is after all my story, fictionalized, but still my life and my experiences, so who better to do the job? Or cheaper. I can afford me. I had forgotten about a whole group of readers, and listeners, who might enjoy my novel. More data was needed.

According to Visions, services for the blind and visually impaired, about 2.5 million Americans are legally blind, cannot see with any kind of assistive aid (magnifiers, glasses, etc.). Less educated and often less literate, the blind are handicapped in more than one way.

Through my own ignorance, I have left millions of people out of the reading loop and didn't consider them an option. I'm usually not that short-sighted. In junior high school, I helped a blind girl, Virginia, to convert notes and lectures to Braille. I read and she typed on a Braille machine. According to Visions, Braille is the only way for the blind to be truly literate. Audiobooks do not promote literacy. Anyone can tell you a story, but to read it for yourself is something else again.

Many blind Americans are older, having lost their vision due to diabetes, macular degeneration, accident or cataracts. There are surgeries to help some of the blind see with limited vision, and often with better results, but that still leaves a lot of people unable to read who often read before they were blind. Many don't learn Braille and rely on audiobooks to fill the time.

To be unable to read a book, to transcend this existence for a little while and live in a world of danger, thrills, love and inspiration is what books are all about. Books provide a window on the world that, if you are blind, might as well be a concrete wall. There is something very wrong with the idea of leaving 2.5 million blind people in the dark without the light a book provides, especially when it is estimated that nearly 50,000 children are blind.

The blind are my forgotten readers, and likely they are the forgotten readers in every publishing company and author's mind. We don't think of the blind until we see the white cane, the dark glasses and a seeing eye dog, or someone comments on Facebook that he will be unable to read the book because it is in print. I should have known better. So should we all. These people provide a forgotten segment of the reading, or listening, population, but more than that they are people much in need of a window on the world, a window that will fill their hours with someone else's vision and maybe make them smile. It's time publishers and authors thought in terms of all potential readers, from children too poor to own a book to the blind, and include them in production and formatting of books to meet their needs. I know I will.


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