Thursday, November 5th, 2009

Are you Blind? Let’s Talk e-books…

Depending on your point of view, my title might have been a little inflammatory. I only meant to grab your attention. On the other hand, if you really are blind, I do want to hear from you. I want to know how you feel about e-books.

This is a tad long, so please bear with me…

In my day job, one of the hats I wear is “Section 508 Coordinator.” Very briefly, Section 508 is a part of the Rehabilitation Act which requires making the Web accessible to people with handicaps. (Right now, it only applies to federal agencies…but I can see it being expanded in the future.) The law’s been around for quite a while, but lacked enforcement.

When President Clinton was in office; however, he gave the law teeth. The legislation he signed allowed anyone to sue a government agency for not making accessible products.

For the last several days, I’ve been attending a Section 508 Conference where there’s been lots of discussion about new technologies, and ways and means to make existing technology accessible. Today was the vendor dog and pony show.

What’s exciting is that many of these technologies can be useful for non-disabled folk, too. For instance, there is software (and I’m not going to name names, because I don’t want to make an advertisement) which will read aloud all the words on the computer screen. It’s meant for use by the blind (or folks with “low vision”). But couldn’t the elderly benefit from it, too? Or anyone, for that matter, who finds reading the written word difficult.

Another company makes similar software, but it highlights the word on the screen as it’s being read. Couldn’t it be used to teach children to read? Or persons for whom English is a second language? In fact, I could see myself using it, say, if I wanted to tidy up my desk and “read” at the same time.

Interestingly, I learned today from a vendor that Web sites, software, hardware, etc. which conform to 508 standards usually garner a market share of use 20 – 40% higher than those who don’t–mostly because they’re reaching a segment of the market that is largely ignored by others.

Wow: 20 – 40%.

With that thought on my mind, I got to wondering about e-book sales to the blind. With assistive technology (AT), e-books are very accessible. (And believe me, the voices of the AT readers are a jillion times better than the craptastic voices included in some bundled or freebie software, making the narrations pleasant to listen to.)

I had the opportunity to chat with several blind and low-vision folks today at the conference. What I wanted to know was: have they found a much larger selection of e-books lately? And, have they been purchasing more?

Overwhelmingly, the few folk I chatted with usually purchased audio books. I expected that. But, many of those I spoke with said that they *are* purchasing more e-books than they used to. And why not? Rarely is an audio book available at the same time the print version comes out, but an electronic version is often available simultaneously. Not only that, there’s a much larger –as well as current–selection available.

I’m a big fan of e-books for a lot of reasons. Until today, I never considered their marketability to the blind. (You might say, my eyes have been opened…)

So: are you blind or have low vision? I’d love to know how you feel about e-books. The debate is heating up over all kinds of issues, but this isn’t one I’ve seen explored yet. Please drop me a comment below.

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