Fiona Phillips is a copyright expert and a popular commentator on intellectual property law and policy. Fiona has been part of the Australian Inclusive Publishing Initiative since its inception. In this article Fiona shares her experience of reading for pleasure over time as her vision has diminished and how she now goes about reading a text when the print is too small for her to ascertain.
What do you remember of the experience of reading when you were a child?
Books played a huge role in my childhood. They lined the walls of most rooms in my parents’ house, and before I could read myself, I enjoyed having stories read to me every night.
I was a precocious reader. A friend of my older brother taught me to read when I was five, using a Dick and Jane reader. I read Little Women when I was seven years old.
Perhaps, as an early sign of my obsession with shoes, I loved Noel Streadtfield’s Ballet Shoes series (Tennis Shoes, White Boots, Ballet Shoes for Anna) and devoured everything she wrote that I could lay my hands on.
I also remember in about grade five, my class writing to the author of I Can Jump Puddles, Alan Marshall. He wrote responses to each and every kid in the class!
When did your vision begin to decline?
I first got glasses when I was 14, but at that stage, I was only very slightly myopic. I started wearing glasses all the time when I was about 17.
My eyesight was deteriorating while I was at university but no one picked up that there was anything seriously wrong and so I just got on with things. I remember when I applied for a part-time job, I had to do a colour blindness test and was surprised to learn that I was colour blind (as it is very rare in females) and I had always had a good sense of colour. Turns out that I was not colour blind, it was the first signs of macular degeneration. However, that was not diagnosed until I was 27 years old and working as a solicitor in a large law firm.
These days I have no central vision at all. That is where your ability to see detail comes from (e.g. for reading, seeing colour, recognising faces). I do all of that with peripheral vision only.
What was it like reading for study with diminishing vision?
I didn’t know at the time of studying that there was anything wrong. But I was a slow reader and that impacted on my performance in exams. But when teaching at university (as I did last year) I found it really difficult to read the prescribed texts. For example, rather than read the case book, I went back to the original sources, which I was able to access online. My only alternative was to take screenshots of text so that I could magnify it.
How has your relationship to reading print books changed over time?
Reading requires about five times more energy for me than it does people who have normal vision. These days reading normal print is almost impossible for me. When I have to do it for work, I tend to take a photo on my phone and magnify the print. I do the same for instruction manuals, recipes and street signs. It is a pretty arduous process.
For work, I try to access texts electronically so that I can magnify them on my large screen computer. Even then, it is hard work.
At home, I use my tablet to read the paper and magazines. I subscribe to Kindle so I can also read books on my tablet. However, these days, I mostly listen to audio books. I have a subscription to Audible which allows me to access the same content at the same time and for the same price as everyone else!
How have technological improvements changed things for you reading at work?
Technology has made accessibility much easier. For example, when I was a young lawyer, I had to buy a special 20-inch monitor which weighed 25 kilos and was very expensive. Now I can just use a standard large screen computer. And having a mobile phone with a good camera means that I don’t need a closed-circuit TV to magnify print.
People are also more aware of accessibility issues. However, if you are like me, and your disability is not obvious, it can be difficult to get people to accommodate your needs.
What books and how do you read for pleasure these days?
I am pretty selective about what I read these days and tend to “read” things on Audible. I recently read Fear: Trump in the White House by Bob Woodward, although I am not sure that was a “pleasure” to read. But I did really enjoy The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose which won the Stella Prize in 2017.
What would it mean to you if books were made available in the format you need, at the same time as everyone else?
On a personal level it would no doubt make life much easier. And on a professional level and as a member of the AIPI, I would consider it a tremendous achievement.
You can listen to an interview with Fiona Phillips on ABC Radio’s Counterpoint
And read some words explaining the Marrakesh Treaty from Fiona on the Copyright Agency News.