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A partially sighted person’s perspective on books: how do we make reading more accessible?

What can I say about the value of reading that has not been said a thousand times? To be transported into another world, time or experience simply through the written word is one of life’s simplest joys. But for far too many people, this joy has been placed behind the barrier of inaccessibility. As a person with a disability, it is deeply concerning to know that others with disabilities are put off from reading as it has not been made appropriately accessible to them. In reflecting on societal attitudes towards books and reading, hopefully we can find a place to start in tackling the issues of accessibility in reading.

If you couldn’t already tell from the pontificating about the joys and importance of reading, I study English Literature. Since coming to university, I have often been confronted with how much my experience as a student with a visual impairment differs from that of my fully sighted peers. For one thing, I own very few physical books, as I can only comfortably read at size 20 font at a minimum; my Kindle and e-book collection is, however, extensive, as this is how I do all my reading.

Reading cannot be made more accessible until the wider perspective shifts to acknowledge that alternative forms for literature are just as valuable as the print book

When I was younger, and ebooks were less readily available, I read large print books, enormous A4 tomes that split Order of the Phoenix into six volumes. Before I had access to the very limited selection of large print books in my secondary school’s library, I would get books through the post from the RNIB’s (Royal National Institute of Blind People’s) large print library, which sadly closed earlier this year. This library would let you order one book to keep every year for your birthday, which is why my small book collection includes huge copies of one of the Mr. Majeika series and James Patterson’s The Angel Experiment, excellent choices from primary school-aged me.

I also accessed a large amount of my reading through audiobooks. Like the large print books, I would get CDs from the Calibre Audio Library in the post every few months when I was in primary school. Before then, I had lots of cassettes – ah, the dark days before Audible. My local library had a reading challenge when I was about 10 to read six books across the summer holiday, which I completed through their collection of audiobooks on CDs. I realise now that this was a very accommodating library, acknowledging the accessibility needs of different readers when even now most people fail to do so.

A large number of people in my field have placed physical books on a podium of superiority above ebooks and audiobooks, despite the fact that the latter two greatly increase the accessibility of a text. The ‘printed books vs e-books’ debate is inherently ableist, though inadvertently in most cases: to argue that the feel of a physical book makes them the only acceptable way to access a text minimises not only the percentage of the readership with disabilities, but also the ability of a writer to produce a book whose worth transcends its format. As members of a university, we rely on books and texts of all varieties, and as such, we need to leave behind the idea that there is one superior way to access the knowledge they provide. Reading cannot be made more accessible until the wider perspective shifts to acknowledge that alternative forms for literature are just as valuable as the print book.

As I will continue to shout for the rest of my life, disability is different for every person experiencing it: one person’s accessibility needs will be dramatically different from another’s, even if they fit under the same umbrella of ‘disabled’

Bookshops also present problems of accessibility. Many of my literary peers wax poetic about bookshops, describing them as little paradises that readily accept any weary word-deprived wanderer; I’ve often felt strange for not getting the same innate sense of home from bookshops who can’t (or won’t) accommodate readers like me. Of course, bookshops are businesses, and have to sell what will make them money, but it’s not like there isn’t a market for books in different forms. Yet large print books remain a rarity on bookshop shelves – and if they are, they are in a separate section, or only available upon request. It is important to mention here that ‘large print’ usually means size 16-18 font, which would still be largely inaccessible to partially sighted readers like myself.

Hence, the turn to ebooks: I wish that my reading habits weren’t funding Jeffrey’s trips to space, but Amazon is currently the best place to buy books in accessible formats. Kindle books are often the most affordable, and Audible has taught many about the joys of audiobooks – bookshops have struggled to keep up as the digital formats become more accessible. Personally, the accessibility and convenience, coupled with the fact that they have been the only way I read for most of my life, means I prefer ebooks. But if large print books were readily available and sold alongside their standard print counterparts, I would certainly be a more frequent customer of my local bookshops.

Making reading accessible is an issue bigger than one article: I have not touched on Braille texts, for example, which usually prove even more difficult to access. As I will continue to shout for the rest of my life, disability is different for every person experiencing it: one person’s accessibility needs will be dramatically different from another’s, even if they fit under the same umbrella of ‘disabled’. I recognise that this, then, makes the matter of making the world accessible difficult – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t demand better. Print books have been the cultural focus, when reading in general is what brings the true value; the road towards accessibility begins with taking print books off of their firmly established pedestal and putting reading, in all forms, in its place. Everyone of all abilities deserves access to the beauty of literature, but we have quite the way to go to achieve that.





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