Technology has always been said to be a game changer. From the Industrial Revolution to the iPhone and Kindle, whenever a new technology is introduced society has changed significantly. Some of the best examples are how factories have replaced cottage industries such as weaving and how meals are now mass-produced. Electronic texts have also had a major social logical impact. This time the impact was most significant for individuals with disabilities.
In the early 20th century recording technology allowed blind individuals independent access to books. The Library of Congress uses the ability to record audio as a way to provide books to blind individuals. As the technology became better the library increased its offerings to hundreds of thousands of titles. Federal government policy legislated that this part of the mandate to the Library of Congress a braille and talking book national lending library be established. Throughout the 20th century various new technology platforms were adopted that improved access to written materials such as books and magazines through the 20th century the technology allowed text to become more and more accessible. By the end of the 1990s patrons of the braille and talking book Library would only be a few months behind their peers in receiving copies of the latest additions of many many titles. As the new century began many international agencies formed a consortium to standardize ways to digitize text. This consortium today is known as the DAISY Consortium
So what is all this meant for people with reading disabilities? Throughout the 20th century this technology meant that blind and low vision individuals had an expanding opportunity and access to information. In the early part of the 20th century it was unusual for individuals who are blind or visually impaired to attend universities. An individual such as Helen Keller was seen as an unusual oddity.
People with disabilities did not go to school and if they did it wasn’t University. Disabled individuals were more likely to be institutionalized. by the end of the 20th century there were more print disabled students receiving educations than ever before. The students used tape recorders and cassette tapes harder than that technology was ever meant to be used. Today with the advancements in technologies a person can carry hundreds of times more material in a netbook or an iPad. Today blind and reading disabled individuals can go into libraries virtually or in person and access a massive collection of information.
The better technology was for producing electronic texts can be directly correlated to participation of students with disabilities within the educational system. Once educators were able to start providing accessible textbooks to students fewer and fewer students were barred from receiving educations. Up to the last third of the 20th century many individuals with disabilities were completely left out of the educational system. In 1974 4 million children with disabilities were found to be barred from education due to disabilities. As the US government began to form new policies about equal access to education for the disabled students the percentage of students in the educational systems went from 2% in 1976 to 11% today. It’s not difficult to correlate the difference technology has made when looking at these numbers. In the late 1970s is when electronic magnifiers in the form of closed circuit TVs provided low vision students easier access to printed text. Right around the same time a revolutionary device the Opticon, gave totally blind individuals the ability to read a printed book. Schools began to provide textbooks on tape and in braille to students. As the technology improved the margin for accessing these texts became smaller and smaller. Teachers of the blind in the early 1980s needed to provide copies of books for brailing to transcription services one or two years in advance. Today most transcription services only require 6 to 8 weeks. Students using electronic texts are becoming more and more of a norm and not a special circumstance. Many educational systems are experimenting with various different platforms of electronic texts to reduce the significant cost of textbooks to both the educational systems and students.
Unfortunately, this century has brought setbacks to accessibility. Electronic texts often include copyright protection that also interferes with assistive technologies. It is not unusual for an individual using a screen reader to be blocked from accessing content by whatever digital rights management or copy protection is keeping the material from being copied. While all the publishers have been rushing to find better ways and faster ways to release electronic texts one of their top priorities has always been copyright protection. It is very frustrating for a person with a reading disability to acquire an electronic file only to discover that their assistive technology is completely blocked from using that file. Students with reading disabilities cannot take advantage of many of the lower-priced E texts specifically because of this problem. It is very important to consider the rights of content owners but we need to be sure that the rights of people with reading disabilities are also respected.
Strangely enough early efforts to digitize texts never thought about copyrights. Project Gutenberg was one of the first efforts to provide a digital archive of some of the world’s most important writings. The modern equivalent of Project Gutenberg is the Google books project. Unlike Project Gutenberg the Google books project is endeavoring to digitize copyrighted material as well as public domain texts. Because of this Google and its partner libraries faced a great deal of resistance from the publishing industry. Although this problem is mostly settled, some of the concessions within the settlement block the accessibility of the content.
As we move forward with electronic materials we must take a stand for accessibility. We cannot in the future permit individual copyrights to be more important than the larger rights of everyone to access information. We cannot permit information that should be available freely to be withheld from people with disabilities because of the fear of inappropriate use. If we must protect material from being copied inappropriately we must find ways to do so that does not violate the rights of individuals with disabilities from using the same information.