reading

How I Read Books as a Blind Person

The image shows a stack of books placed one atop another

In the past month I’ve written quite a bit about the books I’ve been reading. Which has resulted in a few questions about how I actually engage with books.
When I first lost my sight I had no idea of how I might be able to read books. Reading had been a fundamental part of my life since I learned to make sense of the written word and I was seldom to be found without a book, or several books, within reach. So I was terrified I might never be able to read again now that I was blind.

Over time I learned how needless that fear was.

As a blind person I have several different options of how to read. I can listen to a book on audio, just as you might listen to a book from Audible. In fact, many visually-impaired people are avid Audible fans and enjoy listening to books being read by human narrators.
I can also listen to a book on my phone or laptop, using the electronic voice of my screen reader, the application that reads whatever appears on the screen of the device. While this may sound like the most foreign of my reading options to someone who is sighted, it is actually my first choice.

The digital screen reader voice is mostly neutral in tone. It adheres to some spoken norms– dropping the tone at the end of a sentence, or raising it to indicate a question.
To me, this gives the closest experience to reading by sight. All too often I find human narrators interpret the words they’re reading. Which means I am somewhat restricted by their interpretation. Reading with a digital voice gives me the freedom to interpret the text and the story using my own imagination, just as I used to do before I became blind.

I admit that I’m part of a very tiny minority of blind bookworms who choose to read this way. Most seem to prefer human narration. Or using braille.
Braille is also useful as a way to read books. Either a visually-impaired person can read a physical braille book, or they can read a book on a digital device using a braille display. While I’m not really a braille user, which means it would take me months to finish a book that would take me only a few hours on my phone or laptop, I’ll be the first to admit that braille is a great way to read a book without requiring the use of one’s ears. For many people, that can be an advantage. Or in some cases, especially for those who are deaf-blind, a necessity.

So there are several ways I could choose to read as a blind person. I want to stress that none of these choices are better or worse than the others. It is entirely a matter of personal preference.
Regardless of how I engage with books, the important thing is that I have several options as a reader who is blind. So I need never be without books, as I thought I would be when I first lost my sight, the memory of which still makes me shudder. And then reach for the comfort of my book reader to reassure myself that all is well with my book world.

Literary Tour of Africa

The image shows a map of the African continent

Okay, okay, so I’m not actually touring round Africa. But what else would you call it?

This year I set myself two reading goals: to read some of the classics I didn’t get to when I was at school, and to focus on reading outside the genres I tend to default to. The first book I read was Homegoing, by Ghanaian-born Yaa Gyasi. That was the book that shifted my reading into an unexpected direction, and focused me specifically on authors from the African continent.

One of the characters in Homegoing is a history teacher in Ghana. At one point he cautions his students that the texts they study often reflect only a single perspective. That they should try to find the voices that are silenced in the texts. And I became intensely aware of how few books I had read by authors from Africa. Even more, how few of those that I had read were by authors whose voices had traditionally been marginalized in the publishing industry.

Rather than spending time researching possible books, I posted a question on a Facebook book group. And received more than 75 recommendations of books written by authors based in Africa. From numerous countries. In fact, I have so many books and authors to try that I feel slightly overwhelmed. Which isn’t a bad thing when it comes to books!

So far I’ve read three books, each from a different country.

1 Homegoing – by Yaa Gyasi (Ghana)
2 If We Are to Become: A Conversation Taking Us to the Next Level – by Ruramai Sithole (Zimbabwe)
3 The Shadow King – by Maaza Mengiste (Ethiopia)

I wish I could find a way to track the books I’ve read on a map of Africa, but can’t think of one. It’s one of the few times that my blindness has posed me a challenge I can’t solve without sighted help. That’s just the way it is sometimes.

I know I already have a long list of authors and titles to read. But I’m always keen to learn about great books. So why not let me know a few of your favourite books by African authors. I’d love to hear them!

Closing the Chapter on My 2020 Reading Challenge

Bus

First, a very happy new year to you all! May 2021 be a year with many wonderful adventures for you! Let’s hope the year will bring a little more stability than the last one.

My tradition over the past few years has been to start off with a post about my intentions for the year ahead. Frankly, with so much uncertainty, I don’t really feel like writing on that subject. So I’m doing something else instead.

In 2020 I set myself a goal of reading at least one non-fiction book per month. While I have always been a prolific reader, somehow I’ve just never found myself drawn to non-fiction books. Last year I decided to try and change that. At least a little.

And I think I succeeded – in total I read 17 non-fiction books during the year. So I met and exceeded my target. In a previous post I listed the books I read in the first half of the year. You can find the list in the post published on 14 July 2020.

Here’s the list of the non-fiction books I read in the second half of the year:

9 Make Money from Non-Fiction Kindle Books: How to Maximise Your Royalties, Get Paid to Capture Leads, and Rapidly Build A Successful Backend Business – by John Tighe.
10 Timeless on the Silk Road: An Odyssey from London to Hanoi – by Heather Ellis.
11 One More Croissant for the Road – by Felicity Cloake.
12 Walking without Skin: A Journey of Healing from Fear to Forgiveness to Freedom – by Lois Wagner.
13 Kong Boys: Seven Friends from Hong Kong Take on Eleven European Cities for Their Thirtieth Birthdays – by Gerald Yeung.
14 Fundamentals of Leadership: Your Treasure Map for Leading in a New Era Where Everything Has Changed and You Have Become Lost – by Rowan van Dyk.
15 Podcast 101: Simple Steps to Create Your Own Podcast, Build Relationships and Grow Your Business – by Paul Brodie.
16 Ditch the Fear and Just Write It: The No Excuses Power Plan to Start Your First Book – by Alexa Bigwarfe.
17 Adventure by Chicken Bus – by Janet LoSole.

This year I have started another reading challenge – to read books by authors with diverse voices, experiences and from different cultures and geography from myself. I’m starting with a book called Homegoing, by Ghanaian author Yaa Gyasi.

I also plan to read a few classics that I either missed when I was younger, or that I disliked as a teenager and that I’d like to try again to see if my impressions have changed. The first of these is The Great Gatsby, by F Scott Fitzgerald, which I couldn’t stand when I originally read it. I’ve decided to give it a second chance as so many people hold it in such high regard. It’s always possible that I just read it at the wrong time. Only time will tell…

I think I’m in for an exciting reading year!
XXX

Trying to Instill a New Habit

Book

Though I’m a prolific reader, and have always been so, I seldom read non-fiction. In fact, I will seldom read more than a single non-fiction book in the course of a year.

It’s not that I have anything against non-fiction. It’s just that I spend so much time in the real world that I find myself escaping away into fiction books when given the chance. I know it must seem strange for me to read fiction almost exclusively, especially as an author of narrative non-fiction myself.

This year I decided to try and develop the habit of reading more non-fiction. I know there are tons of great non-fiction and narrative non-fiction books out there and set myself a target of reading one per month.

Here are the books I’ve read so far this year:

January 2020 –
Your Leadership Story: Use Your Life Experience to Influence and Inspire.
Author: Deborah Henley.

February 2020
Future’s Alchemist.
Author: Charlotte Kemp.

March 2020
Breaking Free from Bias: Preventing Costly Complaints, Conflict and Talent Loss.
Author: Marilyn O’Hearne

April 2020
Meet Me Accessibly. \
Author: Jonathon Mosen.

May 2020
How to Multiply Your Value and Create Extraordinary Impact.
Author: Unotida Nyoni.
And
How to Self-Publish a Book: For the Technically Challenged.
Author: Barb Drozdowich.

June 2020
From Stress to Success: The ABC of Stress Management.
Author: Jason Sandler.
And
The Jason Voyage: The Quest for the Golden Fleece.
Author: Tim Severin.

Which means I’ve read a total of eight non-fiction books in the first half of the year. It looks like my effort to instill a habit of reading non-fiction might be working. More importantly, I’ve both enjoyed and learned from each book I’ve read.

I wonder what my tally will be by the end of the year. Will I keep up my intention… or will I slip out of the new habit?

Only time will tell.

You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Reader

NewImage

“I can’t imagine any visually impaired person would prefer reading books using a computer voice rather than a human voice!”

I’m probably misquoting the words but that was the sense of a comment I heard on one of the assistive technology podcasts I regularly listen to. My immediate response was to disagree vehemently… and then I paused and thought about it for a bit.

You see, I actually do prefer reading using a computerized voice. And I seriously doubt I’m the only blind person who does so. So I hopped onto Facebook and asked the question, tagging all the visually impaired people I’m connected with on that platform.
It wasn’t just curiosity that drove me, though anyone who knows me will agree that I have a finely developed sense of curiosity. I also wanted to find out to help me reach more blind and visually impaired people with my own books.

It turns out that most of the people I asked preferred human voice books in the form of audio books or services like Audible.com. When chatting to a friend about this startling (to us both) fact he offered a few reasons why this might be so, but his rationale was fairly complicated and this is only meant to be an article, not a thesis!

When I first lost my sight I used to listen to audio books and found that my opinion of the book often depended on the quality of the reader and, in some cases, how well I felt the reader’s voice fitted the genre of the book. Of course, that was back in the days when my only source of books was the library service, Tape Aids for the Blind where the readers were all volunteers so the quality varied quite a bit. Thankfully there was only one instance that the reader was so bad that he totally killed the book for me! But I truly began to feel like I was juding the books, not by their covers but by their readers.

Then someone introduced me to reading on computer using a screen reader and my life was transformed. I loved the ability to scan any book I wanted and read it. I loved the ability to change the rate and pitch of the voice – if you try that with a human voice it often lands up sounding like Minnie Mouse on helium which really isn’t pleasant. But most of all I loved that I was free to interpret the words in whatever way I chose to rather than having my impressions of the book determined by the reader– to me that was the closest I’d found to reading as I’d done when I still had sight.

Ultimately I don’t think there’s a right and wrong way to read when you’re visually impaired. The important thing is that we have the ability to read in whatever format we each prefer, whether it’s using human voice, computer voice, or braille.

But my investigations got me thinking that I really ought to do an audio version of my book, A Different Way of Seeing… Anyone interested in reading for me?

Such an Amazing Gift!

Sometimes it’s easy to criticize organisations that aren’t accessible to a person with a disability. Today I want to highlight a company that is going over and above the call of duty to make their products available to those of us who are visually impaired.

As many of you know I’m a prolific reader. Okay that may not be as true now as it was a few years ago, when I had lots more time on my hands – nowadays I seem to have very few precious hours to curl up with a good book and simply lose myself in a story. But I still love reading and appreciate any access to books that I can access without having to spend ages standing mindlessly flipping pages as the desktop scanner converts a book into a format I can read.

Unlike many of my blind friends overseas I don’t have access to libraries like Bookshare and others that provide e-books to us… nor do I have the funds to buy as many books as I’d like to have to feed my insatiable book craving.

Enter Baen Books…

Baen Booksare a publishing house who specialise in several of my favourite genres of book – fantasy, alternative history and science fiction. Some time ago, Jim Baen, founder of the publishing house, decided to make the titles available at no cost to blind and visually impaired people who register with the site.

I’ve been registered with Baen Books for a few years now and love the ease of simply logging on to the website, skimming through the authors and books that are available and downloading what I choose. It’s also simple to navigate through the process of searching for books and downloading them. I try not to abuse the privilege… but there are just some authors that I can’t resist!

Of course, their books are also available for sale online through their website. So, if you enjoy reading these genres, please consider supporting Baen Books and the wonderful gift they offer to those of us who are blind and visually impaired.

Here’s where you can find them: http://www.baenebooks.com/

Hmm… which reminds me, it’s about time I popped onto the website to download the next in Eric Flint’s Ring of Fire series…

Can the C-Pen Reader Help the Visually Impaired?

I recently had the opportunity to test-drive a C-Pen Reader. For those who have never heard of the C-Pen, it’s a portable device designed to assist persons with reading and language-related learning barriers to access print material in an audio format.

It looks a little like a highlighter pen and the basic idea is that when you run the “nib” of the pen across a line of text it will immediately read it using either the small speaker on the pen itself or headphones.

When I read about the C-Pen Reader I wondered if I could use it to access print materials as someone who is blind, although it’s generally not marketed for this purpose. So that’s what I set out to discover…

I found the C-Pen Reader fairly easy to use. While I couldn’t run the pen across the page very fast, I didn’t find the optimal speed uncomfortably slow. I didn’t have to wait too long for the audio feedback, and I felt the speech quality and accuracy was fairly good.

Personally I found it hard to keep a straight line across the page and to move from one line to the next with any degree of accuracy. I’m sure there are any number of ways to resolve both these problems and I’d find a way to do this if using the C-Pen Reader on a regular basis.

While switching the C-Pen on and off was simple, I couldn’t find a way to get audio access to the menu system so would only be able to use the full features of the C-Pen Reader with sighted help or by remembering the patterns to access each function.

My husband, who is sighted, noted that the C-Pen is designed for people who are right-handed. He said while he would be able to use the device as a left-handed person, that it was not entirely comfortable to do so.

My conclusion was that, while the C-Pen Reader is undoubtedly a useful tool for it’s stated purpose of assisting individuals encountering reading and language barriers, there are easier ways for me to access print materials as a totally blind person. I think the device might be useful for an individual who have sufficient sight to make out the location of the printed words, but for whom the audio would be a benefit.

Overall I feel the C-Pen Reader is an interesting little device that I urge you to investigate if you feel it might be of use to you.

With thanks to Edit Microsystems for letting me test-drive the C-Pen Reader – find out about their products on www.editmicro.co.za

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