How blind people read

In 2021, people in Italy who read at least one book were 40.8 percent of the population who can read, according to the Istat dataso less than half. This figure makes quite an impression when compared with that of blind and visually impaired people who read at least one book a year: according to a survey conducted about ten years agothe percentage rises to 59.1 per cent.

This figure was obtained in 2011 by interviewing 1,505 people for a survey commissioned by the Italian Publishers Association (AIE) and the Italian Union of the Blind and Visually Impaired (UICI). There are no more recent estimates, but one thing is certain: meanwhile reading has become easier for people who are blind, for two reasons. The first is that unlike then, today there is an institution that guarantees that a large part of the new books published in Italy are also accessible to the blind and visually impaired through ebooks. The second is that at the same time the technological tools used to read by blind people have improved and become cheaper. Both of these changes are related to digital formats, which are the most used today.

In general, there are several ways of reading that blind and visually impaired people can do. “Everyone adapts best to what he prefers and what he can use,” explains UICI president Mario Barbuto.

The various existing formats are distinguished first of all on the basis of the sense used to read, which can be touch, hearing but also sight. “Fortunately today the low vision rate is greater than the absolute blindness rate, about 70-75 percent of visually impaired people have some residual vision, and therefore character magnification is widely used.” In many libraries you can find books printed on paper with enlarged characters, but visually impaired people today also read ebooks with their eyesight, given that in digital books both the size of the characters and the colors and contrasts of text and background can be adjusted .

This technical feature is the first of those that make an ebook accessible second the criteria of the LIA Foundationthe body set up by the AIE and the UICI which since 2014 has certified which Italian ebooks are actually usable by various people with disabilities and care an updated catalog that reports them: its establishment, originating in 2011 from a project by the IEA and the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities, was one of the two great changes that in the last decade have improved reading experiences for the blind.

Foundation-certified ebooks are not only accessible to visually impaired people who use type magnification, but also to those who can’t use their eyesight to read. In fact, accessible ebooks can also be read by ear, using vocal synthesis tools that read digital texts “out loud”, or by touch, thanks to braille terminals: they are electro-mechanical devices similar to keyboards that can be connect to computers, tablets and smartphones, and which convert digital text files – even pages of websites like this one – into Braille characters.

On the terminals there is a row of cells, made up of eight holes arranged in two columns and four rows. The characters appear thanks to the lifting of some points through these holes, a mechanism that is made possible by the properties piezoelectric of some crystals, which expand when a voltage is applied to them, and therefore at a given signal can raise a lever, and therefore a point. A row of cells on the terminal can accommodate a number of characters that varies according to the size of the device: they are 14 in the smaller and pocket-sized ones, but can go up to 80.

The other big change concerns Braille terminals: in the last twenty years they have become increasingly functional and economical and for this reason they are very popular.

“The former date from the mid-eighties, in Italy from the end of the eighties, but at the time the prices were very high and the fixtures had a certain delicacy”, says Barbuto. «They still have a high cost, but it has come down a lot: the more comfortable ones for use with mobile phones cost around 1,000 euros, the more common ones, which allow you to read 20 characters at a time, cost around 1,500 euros or something more, and those of 30 to 40 characters, which are more or less the size of a large bar of nougat, cost 3-4 thousand euros and can weigh up to 800 grams».

These devices are used by almost all the people who know Braille, which are 25-30 percent of the absolute blind, those who were already blind as children; according to Barbuto, only older braille readers, over eighty years of age, do not use these tools. Reading braille with terminals is in fact much more comfortable and easier than reading braille paper books, which still exist and are essential for learning to read braille as children.

On the one hand for reasons of space and handling: braille paper books are very thick, both because they are made with particularly thick paper and because the braille characters take up more space than the letters of the alphabet. For example, the children’s novel Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stonewhich in the paperback edition is 320 pages long, in the Braille version occupies 4 volumes for a total of 521 pages. For this reason of space, generally blind people, even if they love reading, do not have large collections of paper books at home: volumes in Braille are more commonly borrowed from specialized libraries, such as the Biblioteca Italiana per i Ciechi “Regina Margherita” in Monza, the largest in Italy, which are also the entities that produce them.

A small part of the catalog of books in Braille of the Italian Library for the Blind “Regina Margherita” of Monza (Italian Library for the Blind “Regina Margherita”)

Reading ebooks with a braille terminal is also more comfortable because digital braille is read faster than paper.

To understand why, one must bear in mind that the original braille characters are made from cells of six dots, arranged in two columns and three rows, while digital braille from cells of eight dots. The greater number of dots in the second system allows for the creation of a much greater number of combinations, and therefore of characters: for this reason, in digital braille there are specific characters not only for each lowercase letter of the alphabet, but also for each uppercase letter. In traditional Braille, the reader is warned that the next letter will be capitalized by a special sign, the “capital sign”, therefore two signs are needed for each capital letter.

Also in traditional braille there are not enough different signs for each digit to have one: for this reason the digits from 1 to 9 are made with the same signs as the letters from “a” to “i” by preceding them with a “number sign” (the 0 corresponds to the sign for the “j” preceded by the number sign). In digital braille the number sign is not needed and there is only one sign for each digit, which in turn shortens the braille texts.

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Reading in Braille is probably the one that comes closest to reading with the eyes of sighted people, in terms of immersion in the text, but it is slower: even on the lines of cells of the largest Braille terminals it is not possible to fit a Entire line of this article in smartphone views. In this sense, digital braille has brought the two experiences closer together.

A reading method that passes through touch and hearing together is also very common. Again thanks to digital tools, it is possible to read with the fingers using a braille terminal and at the same time listen to the same text reproduced with a vocal synthesis. Barbuto explains that high school students who are starting to use digital braille are advised “often to use the two systems in combination: they are not mutually exclusive, but complement each other in the best way”.

In general, the formats most used by most blind people are audio formats, whether it’s reading with speech synthesis or listening to audiobooks, recordings of other people’s reading aloud. «Direct reading is much better than passive reading, therefore Braille, for those who know it, is certainly preferable, but many people lose their sight in adulthood, if not advanced, and hardly learn it», continues Barbuto.

Speech synthesis is also the most convenient format because it can be used with any text and at any time simply by having a smartphone and dedicated apps (an example is Voice Dream), which is why it is also preferred by some people who read braille. It allows faster reading even for those who read in Braille: «A good reader of Braille can read 100-150 words per minute, when you listen you read at least 200 words per minute». Even more so if you use the accelerated mode, which blind and visually impaired people are very used to. «It still has a certain degree of inexpressiveness, but it is a much improved technology, the quality of the synthetic voice is now close to that of the human voice», Barbuto explains again, citing another significant innovation.

For pleasure reading, i.e. for fiction and literature, audiobooks are preferable, which the UICI has been producing since 1957 with its Talking Book Center, financially supported by the state. Its catalog has more than 20,000 titles, which can be listened to for free by blind and visually impaired people: some have been recorded by professional players, but mostly by volunteers (anyone can apply). Since streaming audiobook platforms have existed, offering many editorial innovations in this format, today the Center produces in particular those books that would be unlikely to be recorded: they are chosen partly on the basis of user requests, partly on the basis of annual reports of a commission of journalists and other information and culture professionals.

The free distribution of these audiobooks is possible because there is a European directive and a related Italian law which provides for a copyright waiver for the benefit of visually impaired people, and applies when a book is not already available in an accessible format. Instead, to allow a wider use of the news, the UICI is in dialogue with Audible, Amazon’s audiobook platform, to arrive at a discount on subscriptions for those who are blind.

Returning to the availability of accessible ebooks, which is in turn essential for allowing blind people to read, today the catalog of the LIA Foundation includes more than 30,000 titles.

In addition to the AIE, the UICI, the Monza Library and the Italian Dyslexia Association (AID), they are members of the foundation many Italian publishing houses. «Between 80 and 100 percent of the new books of publishers who are our members are also immediately available in accessible format», says Elisa Molinari, project manager of the Lia Foundation, noting that even compared to the 1990s the number of books available has increased a lot: «A thirty-year-old colleague of ours told us that at the age of 7 he had to read Moby Dick and other long and difficult classics because there weren’t many alternatives».

By mid-2025 all ebooks published in Italy will have to be accessible: the legislative decree n. 82 of May 27 this year, issued to implement the 2019 European Union directive known as European accessibility act. However, it will certainly take more time to achieve more complete accessibility for some particularly important types of books, i.e. school and university textbooks. Today they are generally made upon request by the university disability services, by contacting the publishers to have a digital version which is then made accessible: it is not an immediate thing because the hard-copy versions have various characteristics that complicate reading with a terminal or listening with synthesis. The same service can also be requested from the Monza Library, which takes care of creating fully accessible versions.

How blind people read – Il Post