There’s a large discrepancy in the world of books that I’ve only just come to know. I’ve banged on about my strange resistance to reading before, but I’ve recently learned that there are many people in Australia who would love to read books — if only they were available to them. All the books in the world are available to me, a sighted person, and I feel guilty for not realising this form of discrimination has existed for so long.
Having a print disability means you can’t read a traditional book. The regular paper object form. This might be either because you have a vision impairment and can’t see the words on the page, because you have a learning difficulty like dyslexia, you have a literacy barrier, or you have a condition which means you literally can’t hold a book – such as someone with muscular dystrophy or multiple sclerosis. More than 4,700,000 people in Australia fit into these categories and I had no idea.
Audiobooks and Braille books are options for people with a print disability to “read” and there are more and more audiobooks being created than ever before. But in most cases, if you have a print disability and you want to read a book that’s just released you’re looking at six to 12 months before a version in a format that works for you will be available. If at all. Few organisations do these conversions and most are very under-resourced.
It’s possible most of us take for granted the fact that we can walk into a bookshop or library, pour over all the colourful spines, jackets and synopses, drink in the lovely smells of the books, choose a title that looks good and totter off to the counter. These are things that people with a print disability can’t do or might not bother doing as bookshops especially are not really catered to those who need an audio, large font, Braille, EPUB or DAISY file version of the story of their choice.
It astounds me that with all the technology available to us, that books aren’t easier to convert from print to other file but I am so glad to be part of a group that is working towards making changes in this area of reading.
In my day job, I’m assisting a group called the Australian Inclusive Publishing Initiative. It was formed in 2016 after Australia signed to the Marrakesh Treaty, which effectively resulted in that books had to be made available to those with a print disability, otherwise it would be a form of discrimination. Copyright material must be available in a format that suits everyone, or a master file handed over by the publisher for a registered party to legally convert into a format other than print. But this of course, as mentioned above, takes time; and takes away a person’s capacity to choose and book and be able to read it straight away.
In my work with AIPI, I have helped build a website which houses interviews with people who are doing good work that is progressing the changes required. Some are publishers, some are tech company CEOs and some are consultants working to advise the sector on where to move to and what to converge. The most affecting interviews, however, are with people who have a print disability of some kind.
These people have said to me that they have over time simply accepted that they can’t get a book at the time of publication, in the format that works for them. They feel they must be patient and wait for the book to be ready. Or accept that they won’t ever be able to read that book. They might hear about a book they’d love to read but it’s not available to them.
They have experienced frustration with study too. One man was doing a Literature degree and he couldn’t get his hands on one of the most popular books of all time, in an audiobook version. That was Pride and Prejudice. So he handed in his assignment late after discussing with his lecturer. Two people I’ve interviewed have studied Law — a very text-heavy degree. One person took photos of each page in their textbook’s pages and uploaded them onto a computer screen to then blow up larger to see more clearly. Another got a student friend to read the texts aloud and recorded it to make their own audiobook. The lengths they’ve had to go through to simply read shocked me and made me realise that the world truly privileges those with sight.
It is a privilege to be able to choose any book – printed or ebook – and be able to read it then and there. I count my blessings but want to see change quickly.
Solutions to the problem are coming and I am working with the people who are leading that charge. If Labor gets into government, the publishing industry will be trained to rework its workflow so that as soon as a book begins its life in production, it is designed to be born-accessible. At the end of its production, it will be format-neutral, meaning that the text can be exported into whatever file is needed.
This, to me, is exciting stuff. It’s exciting that people who haven’t had the luxury to choose their books from the same bestseller list as everyone else, will be able to; it’s exciting that a significant and new market can open up for publishers and authors, and it’s exciting what this might mean for bookshops and libraries. Can we soon walk into a bookshop and order a book in whatever form we want? What other ways can reading open up with these workflow changes?
Ultimately, despite only just learning about this significant market-eclipsing, for people with a print disability with a thirst for reading, I am glad to be working in a space that is actively aiming to create a brighter future for this group of very patient people.