Books are not my friends

Wayne E. Dick, Ph.D.
waynedick [at] knowbility [dot] org
Department of Computer Engineering and Computer Science, Emeritus
California State University, Long Beach
First published in Computers and Society, Vol. 26 No. 4, December 1996

We are all familiar with accessibility ramps that provide entry into buildings for disabled persons, and we recognize (intuitively and legally) the need to provide such accommodations. But most people do not appreciate the fact that many disabilities go unnoticed and unaccommodated. If the building is a library and the user is dyslexic, the ramps or steps are of little importance—the barrier is inside on the pages. About one fifth of the population cannot use books for a variety of reasons: blindness, visual impairment, dyslexia, allergies to print and paper, or paralysis of the arms. This group is called the print handicapped—they are denied access to ideas because they cannot use standard print. It is a profoundly limiting disability.

What is a book? There is the physical object: a cover (hard or soft) that contains printed pages. There is also a conceptual object: the creative work of an author or authors. When a librarian or teacher says to a group of children, "Books are our friends," what is being referenced? Is it the physical object or the creative work? Too often, the people who can read print see no difference. The print handicapped—myself included—are not so sloppy. Books are physical. Along with magazines and newspapers, books are rigid. They constitute a wall to many, and they cannot be transcribed easily. Creative works are the ideas inside. Creative works are my friends.

Unwittingly, computer science finds itself at the center of this issue. Information technology makes publication so efficient that we are drowning in good information. All of this printed material poses a crisis for the print handicapped. But at the same time, relief has never been closer. Print-related disabilities can be eradicated if the computer and publication industries decide to take the necessary actions. Coded character sets can be re-targeted to any medium—print, Braille, voice output and large print. The information they contain is plastic.

Unfortunately, industry is moving in the opposite direction. There are two main difficulties: 1) print handicaps are viewed as medical problems, and 2) electronic print information is moving into bitmap format—the digital equivalent to books.

The medical model of disability leads to individualized prosthetic solutions. Taking a medical approach to architectural barriers would force people in wheelchairs to provide personal cranes to lift themselves over stairs. Instead, society adopted a functional approach—the difficulty was lack of access to buildings, not the many different handicaps that might prevent stair-climbing. Posed functionally, the solution is obvious: create alternate entries.

Most print handicaps are addressed using an individual medical approach. Blind receive one path of accommodation, the dyslexic another and the visually impaired yet another. Dividing the resources dilutes the effect. The main role computers play is to provide prosthetics that are expensive and become obsolete quickly. A functional approach would look at the source of information. Today, the text in books and bitmaps is first entered in a coded character format. But then this plastic media is transformed into rigid media—useless to the print handicapped. The useful accommodation for this disability would be production point capture. Get the creative works in coded form before they are rendered useless.

The Web provides hope. HTML has initially been extremely flexible—I can easily adjust my browser to display text legibly as 24-point type with extra line spacing. Unfortunately, as visual art moves to center stage on the Web, text is moving into bitmaps. Reformatting the text might spoil the picture. Web artists might instead heed the principle, "form follows function."

We are at an historic cusp—we can eliminate a handicap or create new barriers. We can propagate books or creative works. They are not the same thing.

Editor's note, 9/25/2014:
It is obvious to everyone how far technology in general and the Web in particular have progressed in the 18 years since Wayne wrote this article. Sadly, though, there has been much less progress in solving the problems that he identified back then.

Accessibility guidelines and laws still fail to fully support the needs of low vision readers. • Although mobile book readers and reading apps allow word wrapping on text enlargement, one widely-used document format and most mobile browsers do not. • Many Web browsers still fail to recognize the use of voice reader markup, leaving the blind without advantages that technology could easily provide. • Accessible mathematics notation is only recently, and tentatively, coming into common use. • These are not technical problems—there is no reason to further delay propagating creative works.