Specialty Reading Sources
Not many people realize that the earliest phonograph records were created specifically to provide spoken recordings for people who could not read because they were blind, and this service continues today! Audio books and listening devices are helpful for readers who are blind or low vision and are an increasingly popular reading option for sighted audiences as well. Almost any popular novel or nonfiction book, general interest and trade magazines, and newspapers are now available in a variety of accessible audio formats.
Launched in 1933 and sponsored by the Library of Congress, the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) is a national network of cooperating libraries that distribute recorded books to people with temporary or permanent low vision, blindness, or a physical, perceptual, or reading disability that prevents them from using regular print materials. These books are loaned and mailed free of charge and are played on machines provided by the NLS program. The books come in special containers that are mailed back free of charge. Talking Books can also be downloaded from the Braille and Audio Reading Download website (BARD) for play on the Digital Talking Book Player via a USB thumb drive or on portable players compatible with the NLS format. To apply for this service, call (800) 424-8567, go to the NLS website, or visit your local library. BARD Mobile is available in the App Store for iOS devices such as the iPod Touch, the iPhone, or the iPad. It is also available from Google Play for devices running Android OS 4.1 or later.
Bookshare.org is a subscription service available exclusively to individuals with vision loss or people who have a learning disability. (You must provide proof of one or the other to join.) For an annual fee, members can download to their computers, PDAs, or specialty book players their choice of thousands of copyrighted bestsellers and periodicals. Non-members can download non-copyrighted material, such as classics by Charles Dickens and Jane Austen, free of charge.
Unlike other audio books, Bookshare titles are not read by human narrators. Rather, they produce synthetic speech based on the written text. Most computers come equipped with speech synthesizer software that can perform this function. Bookshare also enables you to read the text on your computer with the use of screen enlargement software, or on your PDA with a braille display.
Material at Bookshare.org is uploaded by volunteers—most of them blind or visually impaired themselves—and sometimes contains scanning errors, which are usually minor. To learn more, listen to an audio sample, or become a member, go to the Bookshare website.
NFB-Newsline® is the equivalent of a news stand, but one that is available over your telephone. Created by the National Federation of the Blind, NFB-Newsline makes it possible for people with vision loss to read hundreds of different newspapers and dozens of magazines from any telephone. Here is how it works:
- After dialing a toll-free number and logging in with your passcode, you are welcomed by a very clear voice.
- From there, you can use your phone’s keypad to access any newspaper of your choice.
- You can skip forward or back by section, article, or sentence; have unfamiliar words spelled out to you; speed up or slow down the reading pace; and skim the headlines.
To listen to an audio sample, find out if you’re eligible, and to sign up, visit the NFB-Newsline® website.
Radio Reading Services
Radio reading services are available in many parts of the country. These services employ volunteer readers to provide audio radio access to newspapers, magazines, consumer information, and other materials that may not be readily available in braille or on tape.
Listeners can tune in for the day’s news, features, sports, business, opinions, advertisements, and other features. Public affairs programs are also available on many services, as are some books or story-based shows.
Radio reading services are typically broadcast on a sub-carrier channel of an FM radio station. Listeners must have a special, pre-tuned radio receiver to pick up the closed circuit broadcast. Receivers are frequently loaned to listeners by the reading service at no cost.
Some services provide radio reading services programming on television over a SAP (Second Audio Program) channel, community cable system, or FM cable service. Many services also offer live audio streaming of their programming over the Internet while others offer access to archived readings through the Internet or telephone dial-in system.
One popular internet radio service is ACB Radio from the American Council of the Blind. You can visit the site to listen to broadcasts. For more options, go to the International Association of Audio Information Services website to find a program near you.
Downloadable Audio Books
These books are digital files that contain the same content as conventional audio books but can be downloaded on to a personal computer or a portable device such as an MP3 player. Apps for the iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch make the download and listening process seamless for many audio books. Digital playback allows the user to jump back or forward by chapter or sometimes by page. You can even set digital bookmarks that let you find a particular passage instantly. Here is more information about downloadable audio books:
Audio Book Resources
- Audible.com is the first source of commercial electronic books online. You have the choice of listening to the books on your computer (called streaming) or listening on your iPhone, or transferring them to a portable MP3 player.
- Please note: Not all portable devices will play Audible files or are accessible to people with vision loss. Some popular models that meet both criteria are the iPhone newer models, the iPad, the iPod Touch and the iPod Shuffle.
- Public libraries in a growing number of U.S. cities are now offering audio books online. These books are played in Windows Media Player with the assistance of a special program called OverDrive, which you can download for free. Books are generally available on loan for a two- or three-week period, just like hardcopy books. Instead of having to return the book to the library, however, it will simply vanish from your computer’s hard drive when the loan period ends. To find out if this service is available in your area, visit OverDrive’s Digital Library Reserve. You’ll also need a library card from your local library.
- There are other audible book resources available such as LibriVox | free public domain audiobooks and Chirp | The Best Audiobook Deals Without A Subscription Fee (chirpbooks.com).
Audio Players Specifically for People Who are Blind or Visually Impaired
While there are commercial audio players that work reasonably well for people with limited vision, numerous players have been designed specifically with the vision loss community in mind. There are no visual prompts to deal with. All are operated by listening to audio cues and pressing easy-to-use keys.
Victor Reader Stream
The Victor Reader Stream (VR Stream) is sold by HumanWare. About the size of a deck of cards, it features both text-to-speech capabilities and digital audio support. This means you can read electronic files (with synthetic speech) or digital recorded books (with human speech). This versatile device plays books in a variety of digital formats. It can also play text files that have been loaded into it, as well as your favorite music. According to HumanWare, “This assistive device lets you listen to books, newspapers, web radio, music, podcasts, and other online resources.”
Simple to use, the VR Stream lets you place electronic bookmarks in any file and locate specific information or favorite passages quickly. It has variable speed playback, a time Jump feature, auto Sleep shutoff with multiple time settings, and a key lock feature. A digital recorder accessed with one button allows you to record a note and play it back later. The VR Stream comes with a built-in rechargeable battery providing up to 15 hours of uninterrupted listening time. It has small built-in stereo speakers, or you can use headphones or small portable speakers that plug into the headphone jack. Check out the new Victor Stream 3