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Did you know that less than 10% of books published each year are available in accessible formats for blind and visually impaired readers? The disparity is startling, and would be devastating if it weren’t for the efforts of dedicated individuals and organizations taking the initiative to bridge the gap and produce books in accessible formats.
As a blind woman who relies on alternative formats for independent reading, I want to share a few of my go-to resources for finding accessible books. While not an exhaustive list, I hope that in sharing, you will gain an insight and appreciation into the process and the people who dedicate themselves to ensuring the literary world is accessible for people of all abilities.
What are alternative formats?
Alternative formats refer to the format of a print document or electronic file that is adapted so that someone with a print disability has equal access. In regards to accessible book publishing, this encompasses the four main types of which many have various subtypes [i.e. different file formats compatible with assistive technology or specialized software]:
- Large print
Many of the following resources offer most, if not all, of the alternative formats mentioned here. This is not meant to be comprehensive, but a brief overview. For further learning, please check out this detailed explanation of alternative formats from SeeWriteHear.
I wasn’t an Audible junkie until I discovered the Plus catalog. Now, my library is filled with books ranging in genre from thriller to Christian apologetics, from memoir to midwifery, from historical fiction to the classics that I’ve read, reread and read again, and more. When I last checked, I have 95 titles in my library, and I feel like I’m only scratching the surface!
Although Audible isn’t a library dedicated to books in alternate formats for the blind and visually impaired, it is nonetheless accessible. I use both the web version and the iPhone app, and while I find the app a bit finicky for loading my titles, it is the most convenient for keeping my library organized and available at a moment’s notice.
But the primary reason that I maintain my Audible membership, as aforementioned, is the Plus catalog. This is where members can listen to thousands of titles for free along with Audible originals and podcasts. I’ve found some of my best reads in this catalog, including many apologetics titles such as How to Study the Bible by John MacArthur, Is God Anti-Gay? by Sam Allberry, and my favourite thriller series, A Timber Creek K-9 Mystery by Margaret Mizushima, [I read all eight books within a week]!
Considering that Audible is available for everyone to explore and read audiobooks to your heart’s content, I would absolutely recommend checking out the collection. You can sign up for an Audible account here.
CELA Library [Centre for Equitable Library Access], is my top source for accessible books for the blind. Although Audible boasts a wider variety of titles, CELA offers books for free for registered patrons and in formats that are compatible with devices designed for the blind. They offer an impressive one million titles crossing multiple age ranges, genres and formats.
A favourite feature that CELA includes is the ability to filter by accessibility need. People who are blind or visually impaired have different requirements and preferences for reading, and this is reflected in the options available. One of the filters, for example, gives the choice between Human-Narrated Audio or Synthetic Audio. This means that the book is either read by a person or a software program with AI capability. I set this option to Human-Narrated Audio because I enjoy books far more when a narrator reads the book rather than an automated voice from a text-to-speech prograe [but this is something that may be more helpful to someone wanting to read a wider selection of titles that haven’t been produced in human-narrated audio yet]. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Braille formats are available and if selected, are produced in hardcopy and shipped to the patron, a service I’ve taken advantage of for titles that I’d rather read physically rather than audibly.
The CELA collection is even more accessible with the release of the Envoy Connect Audio Book Player, a minimalist device with audio output and six tactile buttons that allows users to navigate between multiple books, and fast forward, rewind and play/pause within individual titles. The Envoy is designed to work in tandem with CELA Connect software so that users can transfer books directly from the website to the Envoy. They can then disconnect their Envoy Connect from the computer and take their player full of audiobooks everywhere. I love my Envoy Connect, which I affectionately call my “blue guy” [mostly so that my husband can figure out which device I’m looking for]. It makes accessing books from CELA’s collection that much faster and making it easier than ever to pick up a book whenever the mood strikes.
If you know someone with a print disability who could benefit from CELA’S services, you can find more information on becoming a patron here.
BookShare was my starting point for learning about and accessing books in accessible formats. It’s the same concept as others on this list: users sign up for an account and once payment [for Canadian members] and proof of disability signed by a qualified professional is submitted, are free to download books in various formats and enjoy.
Although BookShare is still alive and thriving, I rarely use BookShare anymore and this is for two reasons:
- CELA Library has a partnership with BookShare that allows registered CELA patrons to access the BookShare collection simultaneously.
- I prefer to read books in human-narrated audio and this format isn’t as readily available on BookShare.
I do recognize what a valuable resource BookShare is and I’m grateful to have it in my back pocket should the need arise.
You can learn more about accessing the BookShare collection here.
NNELS [National Network for Equitable Library Service] is not a new service for the blind, but it is relatively new to me. Although it’s lower on my list of accessible libraries, it deserves a mention nonetheless.
This library is similar to CELA Library in that it offers books in formats specifically curated for blind and visually impaired readers, but it differs in that it’s not an independent service. NNELS operates through connection with one’s local library. To access the collection, patrons must have a library card, be designated as a patron with a visual impairment, and then access is granted for the collection.
I find NNELS has very few titles that CELA doesn’t, so for me, it makes the most sense to stick with what works best, which is either Audible or CELA Library. However, if I have trouble finding a particular title, it’s certainly on my list of resources to check.
You can find out how NNELS partners with libraries to offer accessible books here.
How do you find books? Let me know below.
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Thanks for reading!
Rhianna McGregor Hajzer