Braille Monitor                          December 2018

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When Readers Are Good

by Ed Vaughan

Ed VaughanFrom the Editor: Dr. C. Edwin Vaughan is professor emeritus at the University of Missouri in Columbia. He lives in California with his wife Joanne, but he still manages to write from time to time when he feels that an issue can benefit from his insight and observations. Here is what he has to say in the ongoing debate about the value of human readers and technology:

In the February 2018 Braille Monitor Sabre Ewing writes about the inadequacies of using human readers for accessible technology. From Ms. Ewing’s perspective when blind people use readers they create diminished access by “distorting cause and effect relationships in virtual environments.” Using readers also promotes “dependence and distortion throughout the data analysis process.” “Allowing a human reader to control software for a blind student will hinder that person’s learning… Equal access also means both blind and sighted students should have the same independence and ease of use. We must therefore demand that, when a school cannot reasonably switch to accessible software, it must provide alternative instructional materials to blind students that do not require the use of a human reader.”

Admittedly Ms. Ewing is focused on a fairly narrow range of blind people using screen reader technology. However, I am writing this to remind us all that there are many different reasons for accessing different material in various ways. For at least eighty years many blind people have pursued careers in higher education, which frequently involves working in research universities. This means a lighter teaching load to provide time for creating new knowledge that can be shared with others through peer-reviewed publications. To be competitive in this environment, a blind person must be efficient in finding ways to access many different sources of information.

For example, on several occasions I have conducted research in archival sources. There is almost no way this could be done without a reader. However with a well-trained, experienced reader, one can scan through much material without bogging down in unimportant details.

As another example I sometimes encounter an article citing twenty or more sources, listed in support of the author’s argument. At times I have wondered if the author was correctly using the many citations. In one case I reviewed seventeen articles in old and obscure printed journals and found that most of them had been misquoted and did not support the author’s argument. A well-trained reader can facilitate what might otherwise be in this instance a very lengthy process (Vaughan & Schroeder 2019).

In a research setting, speed is important. A good reader is more effective than five less able readers. This is the case in many fields such as history, political science, anthropology, and literature—to mention only a few. Any strategy that you find effective should be used until you find a better one.

Ms. Ewing mentions the cost of using readers. At my research university I could employ readers using research grants and other departmental resources such as work-study students. I also paid readers myself. Was this costly? My work probably cost no more than other colleagues who required various kinds of specialized equipment for their research. Also I have used volunteer readers for many decades.

For example, I have had the same volunteer for fourteen years. Not only is he good, but we have become good friends.

I am a great fan of various new technologies. My only concern is that, in our zeal to master one approach, we may overlook many different ways to live the life we want to live.

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