By Michele Smargiassi
They can’t see their books: maybe this is why they read them with such an extraordinary passion. On average, in Italy, a blind person reads 9.2 books a year, while among sighted Italians only two in ten people read so many. Six blind people out of ten read a few pages of a book at least once a week, while 53.2% of Italians never, ever, read. In short, the blind read much more than the sighted.
“The thirst for knowledge is strongest where there is a barrier,” says Orlando Paladino, president of the Unione Italiana Ciechi (Italian Union of the Blind). Or perhaps, where a barrier falls. The data outlined above from a new survey by the Italian Publishers’ Association (Associazione Italiana Editori – AIE: www.aie.it ) would probably have been very different 15 years ago, when it was impossible to read books on a computer, or to have them translated into Braille on a tactile display.
In the recent past, books readable by blind people were very few in number and not very often updated. These were books printed in Braille, the characters formed out of dots that turned even the slim Italian Constitution into a kilo of paper that could only be crammed into an ordinary bag with difficulty. The digital age has radically changed the lives of enthusiastic blind readers. In the era of e-books, their library finally seems to be the same as everyone else’s, including new publications.
Has the problem been solved, then? Can blind people now read what they want? And what do they read?
“I have no preferences,” is the surprising response of some 46.7% of respondents to a new survey, but this apparent indifference can be interpreted as: “There is so little stuff for us to read, I must content myself with what I find.” Clearly, the revolution of books without barriers remains unfinished.
“Most e-books on the market still can’t be read by speech-synthesis software or by Braille translators; some can be read only with enormous obstacles and difficulties, as they have no indexes and hypertext notes, no paratexts, catalogues or directories”, explains Cristina Mussinelli, coordinator of the LIA project (Libri Italiani Accessibili, Italian Accessible Books), which, with the cooperation of the major publishers, will produce and make available to blind and partially sighted people an initial package of three thousand titles within a year, designed to be easily readable by the special access software and hardware used by blind people.
Literature, essays, and handbooks: in fact, blind people do have specific preferences, and they are generally much more demanding than the average reader. AIE launched its survey, which yielded such astonishing results, to find the best way to compose its first specialist catalogue for blind readers.
Since then, much water has passed under the bridge. In 2000, three of the major Italian publishers threatened a legal action for copyright infringement against two pioneering institutions for the blind, the Istituto Cavazza of Bologna and the Galiano Foundation of Catanzaro. Tired of their empty shelves, these organisations had dared to fill them themselves, scanning and putting on the internet a thousand titles in electronic text format, to make them available to blind readers. This was a service that commercial publishing had not provided to what they considered “a small niche” of customers, though, in fact, it is not so small: in Italy, there are 362,000 blind people and one million visually impaired people, and on the whole they love to read, as we have seen.
The ensuing clamor and indignation eventually obliged the publishers to withdraw the complaint. So, eleven years ago it was already possible to fill the gap of access to the texts. Yet blind people had to wait a long time before anyone thought of them as normal readers, or even more devoted than normal. In 2005 the Ministry for Cultural Heritage funded a project aimed at building a digital library for the blind, but in 2011 that project was assigned to UIC and AIE. “There have been incomprehensible bureaucratic delays, against which I raised my voice a year ago, at the Frankfurt exhibition”, says Mark Polillo, President of the publishers.
The trouble now is that due to the enormous delay, the project (conceived when the e-book did not exist) must quickly be updated; it can no longer replace digital publishing, if anything it must stimulate it. “The real goal is to force publishers to consider accessibility for the blind as a requirement of their normal e-books”, Polillo says. “Only then, at last, will the blind will be customers of a library, like everyone else”.
Article reproduced with permission from La Repubblica, where it first appeared on 9 December 2011. Written by Michele Smargiassi and translated for E-Access Bulletin by Margherita Giordano. Our thanks to Margherita.