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Text Access: Pieces of History and Their Impact

Teresa Wells Haven, Assistant Director
Center for Students with Disabilities
University of Arkansas

When I started working in this field, roughly 20 years ago, text access for people with disabilities was severely limited compared to today. Many of my older colleagues will remember the days when there was little or no access to screen readers, scanners, or Optical Character Recognition programs. RFB&D hadn't yet added the "Dyslexic" to their title - they were Recording For the Blind and did not serve any other populations. Then, as now, getting a new edition of a book read onto tape could take weeks or months; it often wouldn't be available until after the student no longer needed it. Braille transcription was performed by people who knew how to type Braille on Perkins Braillers or by professional printing houses like APH; although Braille translation software existed, its use was limited by the availability of computers and people who knew how to run them. The vast majority of text conversion was done by people reading books aloud - either onto cassette tape or directly to the students they served.

Recruiting readers was a daunting task, whether done by an organized group (like RFB or a disability services office) or by the end user. Readers needed to have good speaking voices, good pronunciation, and preferably some knowledge of the material being read. As students progressed into higher-level courses the challenge grew greater, as their readers faced increasingly difficult vocabulary and often the requirement to read in more than one language. Reading loads increased, creating time crunches for the readers and the users of their end products; often the only way to complete reading assignments in a timely manner was to read directly to the end user, leaving the student with no way to refer back to the material at a later time if review was necessary for composing a paper or taking an exam. There was also usually no way for a student to determine how a particular word was spelled, and mispronunciations or other errors by readers could cause irreparable damage to a student's understanding and mastery of the material.

How times have changed! RFB&D now primarily serves people with reading disabilities that are not due to loss of vision; users must place special requests for tape labels and cards in Braille, a service that used to be standard operating procedure. Cassette tapes are becoming a thing of the past, a legacy technology, replaced by the CD and the DVD and the so-much-more-flexible DAISY Digital Talking Book. Some disability services offices still rely upon human readers and cassette tapes to provide access, but the field is rapidly moving to computer-based access, sometimes more quickly than our supervising agencies can provide us with necessary equipment. Braille transcription is generally performed using Braille translation software, and often the people performing the task do not know how to either read or write Braille themselves. As computer access becomes more common (along with other factors), Braille literacy skills are declining, so we perform fewer Braille transcriptions as each year passes; our remaining Braille production tends to focus on fields in which there is currently no other effective method of access - math, hard science, music, and some graphics. At the same time, however, we are challenged to provide text access in a multitude of other formats and for an exploding population. Each year we provide more books for more students, therefore necessarily spending less time on each book. And it is as we provide that access that knowledge of our history can guide us in producing better products for our users and avoiding potential pitfalls.

As an example, a recent discussion in our field has addressed the issue of placement of page numbers in electronic books. Our history has given us two contradictory sets of guidelines to follow: the standard of audio tape, in which the reader moves the page number to the nearest sentence break, and the standard of Braille, which holds the page number to the exact place it held in the original print book, even if it falls in the middle of a sentence. Many producers of e-text, particularly those who came from a strong tradition of audiotape access, have transferred the "move the page number” strategy to their e-text conversion protocols. For some this was done without forethought, simply because it was the way things had always been done; for others it was with the rationalization that students will be listening to the files (with screen readers or other text-to-speech utilities), therefore the sentence should not be broken by a page number announcement. Other e-text producers have stayed with the Braille tradition, again either without forethought if Braille was their former main production method, or rationalizing that the document is still text, that it can be accessed in any number of ways (audio, large print, Braille), and that maintaining the integrity of the page reference is more important than the flow of the sentence. Both approaches have their positive and negative points; however, as our field further evolves we would be wise to consciously consider both methods rather than letting our history dictate our future.

As someone who has produced documents in multiple formats for many years, and who for several years kept the "audio" protocol alive in my e-text production, my personal choice has come to be the "Braille" protocol: keep the page number right where it appears on the print page. My reasons for this decision are several: First, students who do not use access technology must, at a young age, learn to ignore the page breaks and keep reading across them. There is a brief pause as the page is turned, and the user must hold information in memory in order to complete the sentence, but this should not be an insurmountable difficulty for anyone capable of attending college. Second, students at the college level are expected to accurately cite sources when performing research; if we take it upon ourselves to move page numbers in their reading materials, how can they ever be sure they are providing accurate information in their writings? Third, on a legal note, how can we claim to be producing accurate versions of the books if we are literally changing almost every page? And finally, leaving the page number in place, rather than moving it, saves our transcribers a few seconds on every page that they process - seconds that can add up to large amounts of time when calculated over months and years, time that can be devoted to producing additional books. Anyone who subscribes to the Alternate Media listserv has probably already participated in this discussion, but for our colleagues who have not yet considered these issues, please give them some thought. As your conversion programs grow and adapt to changing conditions, you will be glad that you did. Speaking of growing and adapting our conversion programs, many of our smaller schools face the challenge of administrations that do not comprehend the need for improved access, who do not understand why they should need to allocate thousands of dollars for computers, scanners, and specialized software, when a few tape recorders and cassette tapes had been sufficient for their needs in the past. In other words, they are stuck in the past and are unwilling or unable to move into the present or prepare for the future. DS providers at these institutions daily face the choice of breaking their budget in order to outsource a small fraction of the materials they cannot provide on their own, or trying to provide the materials themselves in formats that are neither preferred by the students nor reasonably effective, and often are still not made available in a timely manner. Either way they constantly run the risk of an OCR lawsuit for failing to provide adequate access. Those of us who are fortunate enough to work at institutions which support our conversion programs, whether on the routine level or on the cutting edge, often find ourselves called upon to offer expert advice to less advanced institutions as they strive to improve; let us hope that publications such as the ATHEN E-Journal can offer additional support to this very necessary field.

I consider myself fortunate to have been involved in the alternate format conversion field during these decades; I have not only witnessed but been part of the greatest changes in text access since the invention of the printing press. I look forward to the next twenty years for all that they will bring us in new technology. How will DAISY grow and flower? How much better can synthesized speech become? How will technical content delivery methods continue to change? Will there be a resurgence in Braille literacy as haptic technologies evolve, or will it become a lost art as more people rely on reading with their ears rather than with their fingers? The good news is, we don't just have to wait to find out - we can affect the answers to these questions and many more with our own research, development, and involvement. We can learn from our history, but it doesn't have to dictate our future. Get out there and have fun, folks; these are the best years of our lives!