One of the many joys that escaped my grasp when I was hits by GBS was that of reading books – at least the 3D variety. I have been a reader all my life and holding a book has been something I have delighted in.
In the aftermath of GBS my ability to pick up, carry, hold, and read a book made from paper radically diminished. What was once a sensuous delight became a struggle, a chore, and finally a something to be avoided. I felt the sense of loss keenly.
But as I was recovering, I bought one of the first iPhones. I had a Nokia 3310 which was a nice little phone, but with my now incompetent hands it was a struggle to use it. It took me a week of many hours of practice each day just to be able to pick it up and hold it to my ear. It took longer to dial numbers.
The iPhone was not only far easier to use it introduced me to the world of podcasts and then audiobooks. I then bought an iPad as well and discovered ebooks.
Now well over a decade later I have become a devotee of audiobooks in particular and ebooks to a lesser degree. If I can’t get an audio version of a book, there’s usually an ebook version available. Sadly though, few non-fiction books produced before ebooks and audiobooks became popular can be found in other than their legacy 3D format.
These days there are still many books aren’t published in ebook or audiobook formats. They can be had only in paper between hard or soft covers. Often they are intended for academic libraries.
Below I will argue this is not only an out-of-date attitude, but also deeply non-inclusive. It isn’t just about people with disability. People who are time poor or whose lifestyles make lugging 3D books around problematic also benefit from higher degrees of inclusivity brought by ebook and audiobook formats.
Inclusion and the evolution of technology
In the past 15 years or so technology has evolved in ways that make life far easier for people with disability. AI has the potential to revolutionise accessibility in ways we can scarcely yet imagine.
Books have been transformed into sources of information that can be accessed by people with disabilities using technologies of their own choice. They are no longer confined to the print format that has been standard since the invention of the printing press.
I am ignoring braille here intentionally because it has limited utility and I want to focus on the wider utility of technologies beyond the needs of people with disability.
My notion of inclusion here is wider than disability. Reading has traditionally been an activity undertaken as a single focus while usually sitting down whilst in the possession of a substantial item resting on a table or held.
Ebooks and audiobooks have transformed this picture.
I have the Kindle app on my phone and my computer. I frequently go out with just my iPhone. Now I can read any of maybe 10 books at any time on my phone. I can adjust the font size to meet my needs.
So, on a device smaller than any one book I can access multiple books to read with ease.
The phone also is my primary source of audiobooks. Paired with a Bluetooth headset (I prefer Shokz) I can listen to audiobooks as I drive, walk, exercise or do chores, as well as sitting or lying down.
Between ebooks and audiobooks the opportunity to ‘read’ has expanded massively. Whether the desire has matched the expanded potential I can’t say. But it is the opportunity I want to focus on, because it applies to people with disability as well as anybody who might benefit from greater opportunity.
Reading has been transformed because now we can be read to as well as reading on our own account. This isn’t new. Our parents read to us, and public broadcasting services had daily book readings. What is new is that this experience can now be on demand and personalized.
I loved holding books. I loved collecting them. I have a wall in my home which, apart from a door into a room, has a large built-in bookshelf. It is still substantially full of books. But is more décor and memory than a resource.
The only books I have bought in the past decade are ebooks and audiobooks – and I mostly access them on my phone. Between my iPhone, my computer and my audiobook and ebook providers my new library takes up no additional space. It has no additional weight. The books, a source of ideas and information, have become information.
The old format of 3D books occupying space and having weight is actually legacy technology which has served the world wonderfully well for centuries. But we are in the digital age now with means of storing, distributing, and accessing the content of books in new ways that make books and the ideas they contain far more universally accessible.
Publishers still put books out in 3D form as a first, habitual reflex. Sometimes, often in fact, that’s as far as things get.
I think we must come to see 3D books as legacy technology that panders to nostalgic hankerings for how things used to be. I am sympathetic to that sentiment, but not supportive.
There are questions about whether audio input sticks as well as print. I think this is a question of habit rather than anything essential to our nature or our brains. We, after all, developed an audio-based culture long before print.
When writing was developed the sages of the day feared it would reduce the powers of memory, and they were right. Digital technology is doing the same thing. How many critical phone numbers do you now remember? Your partner’s? Your parents?
Technological evolution creates and destroys. It mostly advances inclusion, but it helps if we are intentional about it and employ the principles of Inclusive Design from the outset.
There are economic factors that make human spoken word audiobooks not a viable option for every published book. But AI may change that in the coming years.
The ebook should be the automatic inclusive format for all published books, with the 3D variety an indulgent nostalgic non-inclusive legacy format.
Maybe not too far into the future we can instruct our personal versions of Siri to read to us from our chosen ebook when we don’t have the chance to sit down and read it ourselves.