E-Books for the Blind – But What About the Caribbean?

In the world of publishing the wheels of change just keep on tuning without let up. Hardly a week goes by without reports surfacing of new advancements in book-trade technology. Yet another one has been announced that looks set to revolutionize the sector even further.

Ray Kurzweil

At the heart of it is acclaimed scientist and inventor Ray Kurzweil, a pioneer in the creation of technologies to assist the blind with reading. He’s the head of Kurzweil Technologies and K-NFB Reading Technology Inc. and is credited with designing the first omni-font optical-character-recognition system and computer-based text-to-speech synthesizer – essentially a print-to-speech reading machine for the blind. Last year, his company’s kReader Mobile software was incorporated into the Nokia N82 smartphone. It’s designed specifically for the blind and enables users to photograph text and have it read to them by the device.

The K-NFB Reading Technology software was developed in collaboration with the National Federation of the Blind, the largest, most influential membership organization of blind people in the United States.

With his revolutionary new e-reading software, Kurzweil is about to write a new chapter in the unfolding saga of electronic-reader technology. The K-NFB software is targeted at both the general e-reader market and the blind. It’s designed to operate seamlessly on a variety of electronic devices, including personal computers, smart phones and ordinary cell phones. It can read any format from straight text to PDF and ePub.

In an interview with Publishers Weekly, Kurzweil said the software will not only allow users to read e-books visually, it will enable the device it’s installed on to read the text aloud and in tandem with the displayed text, highlighting each word as it is spoken. http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6702317.html&

He plans to offer the software free via downloads and CDs. He also told PW he expects to make money through the sale of books using the K-NFB software.

Kurzweil told PW the new technology is “the ultimate expression of my work over the years,” adding “It will have wide distribution and will be available not only to the general reader and to the blind, but to the millions of people who suffer from dyslexia.”

The software reportedly offers high quality graphics and fonts and can even read plays aloud using different voices for different roles. 

Kurzweil and K-NFB Reading Technology Inc have since received a major vote of confidence from Baker & Taylor, Inc., the world’s leading distributor of physical and digital books.  Baker & Taylor this week announced the two companies had formed a partnership to provide digital media content for K-NFB Reading Technology Inc.’s e-reader.

Earlier this year at the Frankfurt International Book Fair where it was initially unveiled, Kurzweil had disclosed that “a number of first-tier publishers” had signed up for the software. Working with a variety of book retailers, his company intends to offer readers access to a “million” public domain titles and a “million” for-pay books. K-NFB and Baker & Taylor have reportedly scheduled an official unveiling of the new technology and B&T’s ebook platform for content delivery on January 7 at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

The K-NFB/Baker & Taylor co-venture has been enthusiastically endorsed by several industry experts, including Mike Shatzkin, the founder and CEO of the consulting firm Idea Logical Company which provides data management services to the publishing industry. In his blog he explained the mechanics of Baker & Taylor’s distribution deals with participating publishers.

“Publishers deliver PDFs, which B&T converts for free to the new format. The publishers get the ebook back with a tool kit that enables totally intuitive functionality that will change styles and layouts, embed links or video or audio and set up the TTV capabilities. If there is a recorded audio of the same text, the toolkit will synch it to the ebook automatically,” said Shatzkin.  http://www.idealog.com/blog/baker-taylor-has-the-next-big-thing-in-ebooks-really

On the heels of the K-NFB and Baker & Taylor joint venture, Cambridge University Press announced they had signed an agreement with The DAISY Forum, a charity for the visually impaired in India, which will allow them to use the content in Cambridge books free of charge. This will give millions of readers with visual impairment unique access to a range of educational materials and save the forum thousands of pounds each year in copyright fees, said the CUP in a press release.

The DAISY Forum is involved in the production of books and reading materials in accessible formats for people who cannot read normal print. They turn the books into digital content, which can be read aloud by special software in computers and laptops.

Around the world, blind and visually impaired people have access to a variety of assistive technologies to help them read, including Braille and computers that can read electronic versions of books and study materials. But, according to Cambridge University Press, “Braille can take a very long time to read – one average 250-page book would convert to about four large Braille books – and content for computer software has not been of a very high standard in the past.”

Ray Kurzweil’s e-reading technology, if it ultimately becomes globally accessible and affordable, holds great promise for the DAISY Forum and the over 10 million visually impaired people in India. For many of them the only way they can access content in books is by other people reading to them.

In the Caribbean blind and visually-impaired people are faced with the same dilemma. They do receive ophthalmological assistance from the region’s governments with significant support from the Cuban government through the popular Operation Miracle Eye Care Programme. Under the program more than 10,000 Caribbean nationals have benefited from free eye care in Cuba. It is provided in collaboration with the Caribbean Council for the Blind (CCB). The CCB is a non-profit entity consisting of 29 member organizations from across the Anglophone and Francophone Caribbean. It provides eye care services throughout the region and lobbies for the full integration of blind persons into society.

But as the CCB itself has confirmed, getting by from day to day continues to be an uphill struggle for the blind and other physically-challenged persons in the Caribbean. For the most part, they have to try and cope with numerous personal and economic limitations as best they can, including the lack of many enabling social amenities. Incredibly – in the 21st century- they are still reduced to having to plead with their governments for equality and basic human rights.

Forty-two years after its establishment in 1967, the CCB has not been able to persuade the regional governments to ratify the UN convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). At its 42nd Biennial General Meeting held in St Kitts in July this year, President of the St. Kitts Society for the Blind, Rockliffe Bowen made the sobering disclosure that, to date, none of Caribbean governments had made provisions to convert the provisions of the UNCRPD into legally binding legislation. http://www.sknvibes.com/News/NewsDetails.cfm/10687?sms_ss=email

According to CCB President Lola Marson, regional statistics indicate that one percent of the Caribbean population is blind and three percent suffers from low vision.

Against the backdrop of a global economy rushing headlong to embrace the empowering benefits of technology, the question must be asked – is the blind segment of the Caribbean population at risk of being relegated to a permanent underclass – separated initially from the sighted world and now even from other blind and visually impaired persons outside of the region, especially the developed world where advancements in technology are gradually helping to level the playing field.

It remains to be seen how the Caribbean will be able to justify the blind among us being left behind in the global quest for economic empowerment and basic human dignity. How will we be able to rationalize over 150,000 people – a virtual nation – being unable to have a fair shot at achieving their full potential educationally and economically; or even enjoy the literary genius of Derek Walcott, Edward Brathwaite, Edwidge Danticat, Elizabeth Nunez and the region’s many other literary stars?  

 History will be the judge. Let us hope that we will not be found wanting.


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