Braille Monitor                                                 June 2012

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Getting Information: Are Human Readers Still Important?

by Gary Wunder

Gary WunderThroughout the years the Braille Monitor has featured articles about using human readers. Sometimes we have covered the struggle to be permitted to use them; at other times our emphasis has been on how to hire, fire, and manage them. In this piece I don't intend to cover either of these topics but to deal with issues I hear discussed frequently these days: when to hire a live reader; whether it is ever appropriate given the demand that information be made accessible; whether a college or university has an obligation to provide one; and whether a human being is ever as efficient as using a computerized device of one’s choosing. Some argue these issues with passion: Technology can never do what a good reader can. Accept the fact that you live in a sighted world and hire help. Others argue with equal vehemence that in the twenty-first century there should be no need to hire someone to read aloud, that hiring people is impractical and undesirable given the electronic gadgetry we have these days, and that to continue to use readers keeps us from pressing hard to gain true accessibility.

When I think about information, my starting point is the premise that sighted people always have more of it than blind people, that in order to compete we must avail ourselves of as many resources as we can, and that, when given a choice, we must decide which technique gets us what we need most efficiently. I try to avoid the trap of deciding which method for getting information is the best and directing all my efforts to getting it in that way. Instead I consider getting information in the same way I look at other challenges, admit there is usually more than one way to meet them, and then figure out which works best for what I need.

If I want to create a program that will rely on writing precise syntax, I would rather do it without the intervention of someone who knows nothing about programming. A computer and a screen-reader give me immediate control and let me test my program again and again. The first time I tried programming back in 1975, I felt very removed from the process because we used punch cards to type information into the machine and bulky printers to see what the computer said by way of reply. Most of my initial programs would generate page upon page of output, usually conveying to me in some cryptic code what I had done that would keep my program from running. I remember being glad to finish my first class and thinking I would not willingly try another--the process seemed too remote, and I felt too dependent on the skill of someone else to find the right keys on the keypunch machine, make certain my cards were in order, feed them into the card reader, and scan my voluminous printouts for errors or the occasional success I could show to the professor. Though the live reader was not ideal and might not have been workable in getting and holding a job, two of them did help me learn what I needed in order to pass my first computer class, and that eventually led to rewarding employment.

Luckily for my career a computer terminal and an Optacon dramatically reduced my need for a live reader and increased my interest in experimenting and learning to love the challenge of programming. When I got a Braille terminal, I needed a reader only for computer magazines, internal mail, and error messages which, at the time, were contained in large manuals that would have taken a lot of time and money to Braille and store.

With the Braille terminal I could work on a problem as long as I had the energy and was therefore no longer confined to the two-hour session I had scheduled with my computer science reader. Using technology when I could and readers when necessary led me to a thirty-one-year career and a very nice living. I think about this experience when I hear students say they are not going to take a class because they can't think of a way to make it accessible. Mention using a reader, and they are shocked. They are quick to quote the law, their right to independent access, and the responsibility of the university and the rehabilitation agency to make it happen. Some institutions of higher learning and some rehabilitation agencies also recoil at the idea of hiring readers, preferring to believe that any print a student needs must be available somewhere. This is far from what we find, and a bit of assertiveness usually results in readers’ being made available.

Without arguing much about how things ought to be, I always want to make the case for how they actually are and how much better to change the system from within than to be kept out by it. I want to tell students that my observation about successful blind people is that they are flexible, innovative, and able to use many different techniques to accomplish their tasks, whether that be reading, transportation, or other challenges generally accomplished using vision.

I submit that nothing is more efficient than hiring a reader when going through a stack of mail. If I need to write a check, the person who reads can help to complete it. If I find a form to review and return, nothing is faster than a human to review and make needed changes. My reader sessions not only include paying bills, I get handwritten correspondence from loved ones. They know I can't see, but they write in the only way they know how, with a pen and paper. I file receipts, fill out warranty cards for new purchases, and change the thermostat when we want air conditioning instead of heat or when Daylight Savings Time requires a twice yearly adjustment of the time.

Some things I have a reader sort will not be read in the session. Big materials get scanned. Advertisements get tossed. Solicitations get considered and then are paid or discarded. My use of live readers has been reduced to about half of what it was ten years ago. The scanner and software I use for reading handles most things that go beyond a page, including material I consider for the Braille Monitor. Information I want to keep or distribute is also scanned. Things I once paid with a check can often be paid using online company sites or a wonderful system called Bill Pay that will allow me to pay big companies electronically or pay small businesses or individuals by check. Much of the mail I once received came in print through the postal service. Much of it today comes through email. Occasionally material that comes electronically must be printed, and someone with sight must interpret the tables and charts, but my use of a live reader has dropped from three or four times a week to once or twice.

Some people reject live readers, and some reject technology. The latter regard computers as confusers, and, though they may use them, it is always through another person. They read email with a human reader and write it the same way. The freedom to work at 1:00 in the morning when sleep won't come isn't a possibility; neither is the ability to read the thousands of books from Bookshare, Project Gutenberg, WebBraille, or the increasing number of online bookstores that make their titles available electronically. For some the change brings fear; others contend they are too old to change; still others say that, as long as their way works for them, there’s no need for them to bother to learn new ways of reading and writing.

So what about school? People help students track down accessible copies of books and in many cases school-based resources to put in an accessible format. Those who can read Braille and large print usually prefer them. For some subjects these hardcopy format documents are more crucial than others. Learning to read a language is much easier in Braille than it is using an audio text, though a skilled human reader or tutor can vastly improve one’s pronunciation. Mathematics is much easier if one can examine numbers rather than trying to keep them in one’s head. Science is usually learned more easily when read visually or tactilely, but interpreting diagrams and videos can be much easier using a live reader. Books that have been scanned or material previously recorded can be tremendously beneficial so that one reads on his or her own schedule and can reread items as many times as necessary to get the meaning.

We live in a time when relying on one method exclusively for getting information is impractical and detrimental. Relying exclusively on human readers is out of date; relying exclusively on technology overstates what is available to us in the present and probably overestimates what will be available to us in the near future. Much time and effort are going into making material accessible to us at the same time and at the same price as it is for sighted people, but too much is still beyond our reach to decide that human readers no longer have a place in our lives. Similarly, too much is available electronically for us to cling to the old ways and wait for everything to be read aloud by paid or volunteer readers. More than ever blind people must become proficient in all the ways to read and know when to apply them. One-size-fits-all doesn't work for clothes, and seldom does it work for any real-world problem. Our challenge is all about living in the second decade of the twenty-first century, dealing with the world as we find it, changing it for the better when we can, and doing everything we can to keep from being left behind in this marvelous time of transition. Maybe two decades from now talk about hiring a human reader will be consigned to the history books, but today this technique remains an important tool in our box. Like every other tool, at times it is essential and at times it is less than ideal, but useful nonetheless. Let's not confuse the objective with the tool or the goal with the technique. Employment, integration, and full participation are so vital to us that anything that furthers our having them must be called into service and valued for the good it can do in our lives.

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