Tony Starkey, Policy, Accessibility and Client Consultant for the Royal Society for the Blind, shares with the APA his story of becoming vision impaired and how it impacted his reading and career. Alongside his personal history, Tony takes us through time pinpointing the technical innovations in making books more accessible over the years.

Tony is a founding representative of the Australian Inclusive Publishing Initiative.

I lost about 97 per cent of my vision just prior to my 16th birthday, which was caused by a chronic attack of Glaucoma – a bit rare for that age group. I completed Year 11 but then decided that my career choices needed to be not reliant on vision. In 1968, technology was not around to compensate.

Transitioning from being able to read paperbacks, use the library and read the newspaper, was challenging along with moving around the built environment.

I eventually joined the Royal Society for the Blind industrial workshop and while there, not only did I produce brooms and doormats, I was taught Braille. I had a hand held magnifier and worked with 120 other people whose vision in most cases was much worse than mine.

At this time, I also started reading audio books which were produced by the specialist blindness agencies. This meant that it usually took two or three years to get hold of a recent book. As a side effect, concentrating on my Braille skills fell away.

Career wise, in 1972, I participated in a Computer Programming course for the blind with IBM and worked for a bank for 10 years using a combination of recorded  information and running my nose on paper and screens.

In the 1980s synthetic audio was created. Optical character recognition (OCR) technology assisted in access to day-to-day reading but you would never have read a book. Audio cassettes arrived in the eighties too and with it the portability of talking books so you were no longer attached to a powerpoint.

During this time, students were supported by blindness agencies to have their books transcribed – if copyright permission was granted.

While I did have audio book access to magazines and newspapers I was reliant on family and friends to provide info to me. A major frustration with this was in asking “Anything in the paper today?” and after 30 mins of silence I’d hear, “No nothing that you would be interested in”.  Information censorship, I say!!

During the late nineties screen readers became more accessible but relied on philanthropic support as there would no supporting Government programs.

With the introduction of the internet we then had the barriers that the content was not formatted and accessible to screen readers. Our association still says that today we have only moved from non-commercial information access to about 10 per cent. With the Marrakesh Treaty, a large number of books produced by specialist blindness agencies would still only give us about $1-2M titles altogether.

Where are we today?

If you are a Braille reader and love to hold a book and read physical Braille, you are still not very well catered for. With the introduction of digital and refreshable Braille products, the cost of production of hard copy Braille is often discounted to “can’t you manage with synthetic voice?”

With audio, the commercial production has not been driven by society wishing to make the world a more accessible place but by the general community wanting them for convenience. Cassette players, CDs and bluetooth in trucks and cars. The number of audio books (with human narration) are still not in equal numbers in libraries compared with print books.

Since the late nineties digital standards have been created, mainly driven by international blindness agencies. We are now able to, if “Born Accessible”, create a book in many formats with limited human intervention and deliver books to the whole community at the same time.

Imagine if Harry Potter was released and the blind children of the world had to wait years to read it? However, that was the situation less than 20 years ago unless the specialist libraries did not create the accessible version at no cost to the publisher or author. People of the blind community were grateful if publishers gave us a digital text copy within good time or allowed transcribers to copy the print version.

Fortunately today, students are provided with digital content in a more timely manner but if you want physical Braille, its transition has to be manually negotiated and produced by specialist agencies.

The need for accessible published books will increase dramatically as the population ages and audible information is required.

Currently I read books produced with human narration, reading books by James Phelan, Lee Childs, Stephen Leather. I cannot estimate how many books I have read but would usually complete about 30 hours a week. Audio books are great for listening to while doing the domestic chores – but I admit it is a bit anti-social!

One downfall of digital books over Braille and print is the spelling and literacy elements. These days with creative interpretations of names and multi-cultural influences fanatic spelling presents problems with simple things like email addresses and searching the internet.

For blind students it is vital that options for study and reference are available in their format of choice. Audio is good for reading for entertainment, and synthetic voice may be okay for magazines but documents, and legal and financial information is essential to be accurate.

Government always supported us but legislation to copyright has been a complex journey but where we are today, I think, is fair to all.

Ultimately, we need to have all book formats at the same price at the same time. But if produced in the EPUB3 and future upgrades to this Standard observe the W3C Accessibility Standards, then in using technology I would not be Print Disabled but a normal member of the community.

At RNS we estimate that there are over 450,000 blind or vision impaired Australians and over 280 million in the world that would benefit from Accessible Publishing.

I always said that if I could read what I wanted or was able to have information as others do, at the time they do, I would be dangerous!!


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