Braille Monitor                                                 May 2011

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Access to Electronic Books, a Comparative Review

by Wesley Majerus

Wesley MajerusFrom the Editor: It is said that we live in the information age, and nothing is more reflective of this than the ever-increasing number of sources for books and devices and software with which to play them. Wes Majerus wrote this article shortly before leaving the National Federation of the Blind’s International Braille and Technology Center, where all of the hardware and software he discusses can be found under one roof. Wes now teaches computer and other technology at the Colorado Center for the Blind, and, as you will see in his article, there’s a lot out there to learn. Here is what he says:

The eBook market has become quite popular over the past few years. While the blind reader could previously access texts only through a few services like Bookshare™, the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, and Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic, access is now available through a number of sources, both specialized and mainstream. The aim of this article is to inform the reader about accessible services and how to gain access to them. Because some services require specific hardware for their access, we will provide limited descriptions of hardware. In addition we will compare digital Talking Book players currently on the market with respect to their capacity to access book sources that use DAISY (Digital Accessible Information System).

Inaccessible Services

A number of eBook resources remain inaccessible. Anything that uses the Adobe Digital Editions format does not provide access to blind users at this time. Adobe, however, is aware of this issue and is working to release a new, accessible version of Digital Editions. Barnes and Noble's Nook eReader, Nook readers for the Mac and PC, as well as their Nook Study format are also not usable by blind people. The same is true of Sony's Reader.

Mainstream Book Services

Amazon Kindle: Since its launch in 2007, the Amazon Kindle has not been accessible to blind users. The latest iteration of the Kindle, which appeared in August of 2010, does offer some features that might be considered accessibility enhancements but which are not fully developed. The device offers Voice Guidance, a system that reads menus and menu choices. This option must be enabled visually using the menus before it can be used. Voice Guidance is separate from the text-to-speech (TTS) that reads the digital content such as books, magazines, or newspapers. The reading TTS must be enabled for each document every time you want to read it. This is done through the menu once you have selected reading material. It should also be noted that the Kindle's onboard Web browser is inaccessible as of this writing. Content must be purchased from another device and then synchronized to the Kindle. For this reason it is important to set up an Amazon account before purchasing the Kindle so that it will arrive tied to that account. Reading of Kindle books is also contingent on whether the publisher allows text-to-speech to be enabled for that title. Blind readers can learn whether this is the case by viewing the description of the book on Amazon's Website. If a book cannot be read by the Kindle, you will see "Text-to-Speech: Not enabled" in the book description when viewing details about its Kindle edition.

Apple iBooks

Apple launched its iPad tablet computer in April of 2010. One of the many features that debuted with the launch of the device was the ability to use an online bookstore developed by Apple and called iBooks, which offers the ability to browse, purchase, and download books securely through the iPad, iPod Touch, and iPhone with the latest iOS (iPhone operating system) version and a small iBooks application on the device. Once downloaded, users can read the book nonvisually through the VoiceOver screen-access package and its accompanying touch screen gestures that let you control the way the device reads, navigate through the book by page, and continuously read the book from the current location. You can also pause and resume reading, bookmark pages, and perform other actions. iBooks is a mainstream solution that allows blind users to obtain books at the same price and at the same time as their sighted neighbors do. In addition it is possible to sample a book free of charge and to download public domain books from Project Gutenberg through the iBooks Store.

As of this writing the current version of iOS is Version 4.2. This latest version of Apple's iPhone operating system offers the capability to pair a wireless Bluetooth Braille display with your device. Doing so lets you read iBooks content in refreshable Braille. It should be noted, however, that some issues exist with navigation through the book using Braille displays because you must still use the device's touch screen to turn book pages and refocus the Braille display on the book's text. In some instances you may be able to use shortcut keys Apple has provided for Braille display users. iOS 4.2 synchronized features between iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad. To take advantage of Braille support and enhanced navigation through iBooks content, you must upgrade your iPad to the latest operating system. These enhanced navigation capabilities include the ability to move by word and character in the text and to look up word definitions in the iBooks dictionary.


Audible is a service that offers recorded audio books. Originally meant for mainstream audio book listeners, this service has gained traction in the blindness community over the past few years. Audio from Audible is downloaded in a proprietary format and can be played only on players that support it. Many popular MP3 players as well as iPods, the iPhone, and iPad will play Audible format. Audible content can also be played in the popular iTunes media management software package. Many Talking Book playback solutions and notetakers will also play Audible books.


Before analyzing other sources of digital books, it is important to discuss the DAISY format. Many services that offer books to the blind use this format because DAISY offers versatility by providing navigation that goes well beyond the plain text navigation used in the first electronic books for the blind. DAISY comes in a number of forms. The full audio DAISY book is the simplest, consisting of audio that has been pre-recorded either by a human reader or through the use of text-to-speech synthesis. At important points throughout the book, marks are inserted that allow playback hardware or software to navigate using these markers. Often books are marked up by sections and chapters. For finer granularity, or level of navigation, book producers mark up the beginning of each page so that users can navigate from page to page or tell their playback hardware or software to go to a specific page in the book. The extent to which navigation marks are inserted depends on the content of the book, how the book was recorded, and the time the producer put into it. Something recorded on cassette may require a producer to listen to the entire recording to determine where appropriate marks are to be inserted.

Full text DAISY is the next type of DAISY content. It consists simply of the book's text with markup added. As with the audio DAISY discussed above, the markup can be as simple as sections and chapters, or as complex as page and paragraph level markup. Depending on the producer, only the beginning notes and end notes may be marked up.

Some hybrid forms of DAISY also exist. In full-text full-audio DAISY, both pre-recorded audio and the book's text are present. These are synchronized so that, if your playback solution supports it, you can switch between the text and the audio, and they will be in synch with each other. This is beneficial if you want to perform a search on a specific word in the book or need to know how a proper name is spelled or for deaf-blind readers who want to read the text on a refreshable Braille display. With some hardware and software solutions, the Braille moves along with the audio playback so that you can read and listen at the same time. Some book producers provide a full-audio DAISY book with limited text included. At times this limited text is the titles of chapters, page numbers, or other material.


Bookshare is a DAISY service that has been available for approximately nine years. It offers downloadable books in text-only DAISY format. Depending on the quality and source of the book, the DAISY markup varies from title to title. Some titles may have pages, sections, and chapter navigation, while others, such as the freely available public domain books, allow navigation to the beginning and end of the book only. For those who do not want to work with DAISY, Bookshare offers downloads as plain text or as BRF (formatted Braille) files for viewing on a device with a refreshable Braille display. No matter which way you wish to download the books, recent titles are provided in ZIP format that must be unlocked with a password. Annual memberships to Bookshare are fifty dollars unless you are a student, in which case you can obtain a free membership as of this writing. Bookshare members may also do volunteer work for the service and receive credit for scanning or proofing books, and these credits are applied against the annual membership fee. A $25 setup fee is charged when a paid membership is established.

Open Library

The Open Library, run by the Internet Archive, is a repository for a number of books. Many of these titles have been scanned from print and are searchable from the <> site. Public domain books can be downloaded in text-only format and in text-only DAISY. Markup for these books is sporadic, meaning that some books have page-level markup, while others have headings for the beginning of the book only. At the beginning of summer 2010, the Internet Archive announced that it was allowing access to some more recent titles in its collection through the DAISY format. Since these titles are not in the public domain, they are being offered as protected DAISY downloads that require a key to decrypt the books. As of this writing, Victor Reader Streams that contain the NLS authorization key will play these titles. Note that you must have the more recent authorization scheme from the NLS that contains three keys. The older scheme that came with streams authorized before early 2009 will not open the books.

The National Library Service

Probably the most well-known service for providing accessible books is the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS). For some time its books were offered on cassette tape; however, the cassette program is quickly being replaced with digital offerings.

Web-Braille is a source of electronic Braille from the National Library Service and has been available since 1999. Web Braille offers the reader who qualifies for service the ability to download books in Braille Format with the suffix BRF. These files can be viewed on notetakers such as the BrailleNote, BrailleSense, and PAC Mate. Players like the Victor Reader Stream and BookSense will also generate synthesized text to speech using these files. These files are sequential presentations of books and magazines with no navigational structure; however, users can search the file using their playback device's search facility to find things like page numbers, chapter titles, or other words and phrases.

The NLS also offers audio titles in a digital format. These titles are available in DAISY and can be played back on the NLS Digital Talking Book Player, which is freely available from your regional library. Through the use of an authorization key, digital players like the Book Port Plus, BookSense, Plextalk Pocket, and Victor Reader Stream can access these books. Navigation through the book is available, but its granularity, is dependent on several factors. If the book was originally recorded on cassette, it will have fewer marks that the reader can use to skip around in the book. The type of book will also determine how much time and attention NLS puts into inserting navigation information. A novel requires less markup than a cookbook.

Books are downloadable from the NLS Braille and Audio Reading download site or can be obtained on a cartridge from your cooperating library. Visit <> for further details.

Read How You Want

Read How You Want offers books for purchase from its online store. These books are produced in DAISY and incorporate recorded synthesized speech, full text, and images. Using a software player, you can choose either to read the text with screen-access software or to listen to the recorded audio. Its DAISY books will also play on hardware players. You may view samples of its work by visiting <>.

Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic

Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D) is another source of electronic books. Its titles focus primarily on academic subjects, but one can find some fictional works and how-to books such as computer programming tutorials, operating system manuals, and other instructional texts in the collection. Books can either be obtained on CD in DAISY format, or be downloaded through the RFB&D Download Manager. The Download Manager is compatible with Windows and Macintosh systems. Books are also downloadable in the Protected WMA format. Playback of DAISY books is available with a decryption key from RFB&D and a compatible player. Software solutions such as FS Reader, gh Player, Book Wizard Reader, and Dolphin Easy Reader will play RFB&D books. RFB&D offers a free copy of ReadHear™ to qualifying members. This software can be run on either Windows or a Macintosh. Though one copy of the software is free, additional licenses can be purchased for $20 each. Books can also be played on hardware such as the Book Port Plus, BookSense, Plextalk Pocket, and Victor Reader Stream, among others.


Victor Reader Stream: This is one of the most popular small digital Talking Book players. It was responsible for making small DTB players popular because of its versatility. As of this writing, the Stream is the only player to offer the capability to play EPUB formatted books, through a softpack that can be added to existing Streams or purchased with new units. By using consistent keys on its telephone-style keypad, users can change the level of navigation in DAISY books, move to the various types of content on the device such as books, music, audio files, and text documents, as well as navigate through text documents by word or character. It is one of the few players that lets you choose to work with either the text or audio portion of a DAISY title that contains both full text and full audio. It sells for $329 from HumanWare.

BookSense: This is another small digital Talking Book player. It is the only player that offers a model containing onboard memory and Bluetooth audio capabilities. The player uses a keypad and five-way directional arrow key set. Though the arrows are pronounced on the device, the keypad buttons can be difficult to feel for those with less sensitive fingers because the buttons are fairly flush with the unit's surface. If you find yourself listening to a number of books that do not offer recorded audio, you may find the BookSense's text-to-speech voices to be more listenable than other players on the market; the device uses the Neospeech VoiceText Kate and Paul voices that some people like because of their human-like sound. As with the Stream, it is possible to choose from the text or audio portion of a DAISY book that contains both text and audio. The BookSense XT, containing onboard memory and Bluetooth audio capabilities retails for $449. The standard BookSense, which requires secure digital memory cards for storing material, retails for $349. A model called the BookSense DS is also available. It contains a small LCD screen for reading text content.

The Plextalk Pocket: This is a small, flat unit that is about the size of a small cell phone. Its numeric keypad is discernible with convex, dome-like number keys. It also has a five-way arrow key set that has four buttons around it for navigation and bookmarking. The Plextalk has a guide voice and musical tones to help the user work in the menus and input values governing settings on the player. This guide voice is prerecorded, but it is comprised of samples of synthesized speech. Some may find this difficult to understand. In addition, the reading voices sound a bit compressed and thus are tinny to the ear. One major benefit of this player is its ability to create a DAISY book on the fly. This is achieved by adding headings at important parts of a recording. This can be done either as the recording progresses or as the user listens to the recording at a later time. This player does not provide access to the text portion of a DAISY book when that book contains an audio track. The built-in wireless networking capabilities of the Plextalk Pocket were recently activated, providing the capability to transfer files between a computer and the Plextalk Pocket over a wireless network. Future enhancements may also use this functionality.

Book Port Plus: This device uses the same hardware as the Plextalk Pocket. It is a small, candy-bar-type unit with well-defined number buttons, a five-way arrow set, and buttons flanking the arrows for navigation, menu use, and other functions. The Book Port Plus uses software written by the American Printing House for the Blind that is different from that of the Plextalk Pocket. The Book Port Plus still allows for recording of audio and eventual creation of a DAISY title. The means by which one navigates through a DAISY book differs on the Book Port Plus because keypad buttons are used instead of the arrow keys. Book Port Plus also uses a human voice for navigating through menus and changing settings on the device. The musical tones that provide audio cues on the Plextalk Pocket are retained in Book Port Plus's software. The speech engines that read text files and text-only DAISY titles also sound a bit compressed and may be difficult for some to understand. As with the Plextalk Pocket, users are unable to navigate to the text portion of a DAISY title if audio is present. Users can, however, edit text files on the Book Port Plus through the use of thumb Braille entry or by using the Book Port Plus's keypad the same way one would use a cell phone for entering letters by pressing the number on the keypad corresponding to a specific letter. Thumb Braille uses the keypad like a Braille cell. The Book Port Plus sells for $329 from the American Printing House for the Blind. Wi-Fi capabilities also exist within the Book Port Plus hardware, and future enhancements may use them.

NLS Talking Book Player: The National Library Service Talking Book Player is available to any patron of the Braille and Talking Book Service. The player uses cartridges sent to patrons from a National Library Service regional library. Blank cartridges are available from the American Printing House for the Blind for storing downloaded books from the Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) site as well as other content. Content can also be played from a variety of USB flash drives that can be attached to the player through its side USB jack. The player does not have the capability to play text-only DAISY books or other text files. However, by placing MP3 or Wave files in a directory called "Audio plus Podcasts,” you can play music or other recorded audio using the device.

Braille Plus Mobile Manager and Icon: The Braille Plus Mobile Manager is a product of the American Printing House for the Blind. It contains a telephone-style keypad as well as a Braille keyboard for text entry. Output is available through speech using the unit's built-in speakers or Braille through a Bluetooth or USB-powered Braille display. It can support DAISY titles with text, audio, or both. In addition to playback of RFB&D-protected Audio Plus titles, Braille Plus can play the National Library Service Talking Books.

The Icon is a similar unit to the Braille Plus. Manufactured and distributed by LevelStar, Icon contains stereo speakers and resembles a large cell phone. The device can provide output through speech or refreshable Braille. Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic titles are supported as well as those from the National Library Service Braille and Audio Reading Download site.

BrailleNote: The BrailleNote from HumanWare is a notetaker and organizer. Available in Braille and QWERTY-keyboard models and with eighteen- or thirty-two-cell displays, the BrailleNote contains a Book Reader application that will access DAISY titles as well as text and formatted Braille documents. Books with recorded audio are played aloud, and those that contain text can be read either using refreshable Braille or using the built-in Eloquence or Keynote Gold speech synthesizers. Keysoft, the operating environment on the BrailleNote, is also available on VoiceNote units, which offer speech output only.

Braille Sense and Voice Sense: These notetakers are produced by HIMS. They come with either Braille or QWERTY keyboards and provide speech output. The Braille Sense can be purchased as either a full-size, thirty-two-cell model or as an eighteen-cell unit called the Braille Sense OnHand. All of these devices contain a DAISY reader that is capable of playing unprotected DAISY 2.02 and DAISY 3 titles. Control of the book can be achieved through the keyboard or by switching the front media keys into DAISY mode. If a title contains text and audio, playback of the audio is synchronized with text on the Braille display. Text-only titles can be read on the Braille display if available, or the unit's internal speech synthesizer can read them aloud.


AMIS: AMIS, pronounced A-Mee, stands for the Accessible Multimedia Information System. It is a free software package that was developed by the DAISY consortium to play DAISY titles on any Windows-based computer. The program is self-voicing, which means that it does not need a screen-access package to function. However, scripts have been written that enhance the player's capabilities with JAWS, including muting of speech when the player is talking and easy navigation to the text window of a DAISY title that contains text. AMIS does not permit the playback of protected digital books at this time.

Book Wizard Reader: This is a DAISY playback program developed by APH for Windows-based machines. The system can create its own speech through a combination of human-recorded responses for its menus and messages and Microsoft's Speech API for the text to be read. It supports NIMAS files as well as DAISY 2.02 and DAISY 3 titles.

DAISYWorm: This is an iPhone and iPod Touch application developed by the Association for the Blind of Western Australia. The application supports DAISY 2.02 as well as DAISY 3 titles that contain audio. As of this writing it does not support text-only DAISY titles.

Dolphin EasyReader: Dolphin EasyReader is a Windows-based DAISY playback solution that supports a variety of formats. The product can access both DAISY 2.02 and DAISY 3 titles as well as protected EPUB and MathML expressions embedded in HTML or DAISY titles. In addition users can open HTML or TXT files with EasyReader. The product can work in conjunction with Dolphin's Supernova screen-access package, or you can use it with JAWS in conjunction with scripts that have been developed to make EasyReader more user-friendly with JAWS.

FS Reader: This is Freedom Scientific's DAISY playback solution. The reader supports DAISY 2.02 and DAISY 3 titles that contain text or audio. The product can be authorized to play RFB&D’S AudioPlus books. If a JAWS demo is downloaded, FS Reader is installed to the computer system and can be used with other screen-access packages. In addition to allowing DAISY playback on any Windows-based computer, FS Reader is also available for the PAC Mate notetaker. PAC Mate Omni users can download the program free from Freedom Scientific's Website if they are using a version of the Omni software before 6.5. PAC Mate Omni 6.5, a free upgrade from 6.2, contains FS Reader as a built-in application.

InDAISY: InDAISY is an application produced for the iOS family of devices from Apple. It is compatible with the iPad, iPod Touch, and iPhone and offers capabilities to play back DAISY content that contains text or audio. Content is transferred to the device using an Internet connection and a built-in FTP server that bundles with InDAISY. The app sells for $19.99 and is available in the iTunes App Store.

Olearia: This is a free DAISY playback application for Macintosh computers. It is produced by the Association for the Blind of Western Australia and is available free of charge. The application is compatible with VoiceOver, Apple's built-in screen-access package. Support is available for books that contain text, audio, or both full text and full audio. Though Bookshare titles can be played with Olearia, there is no support for RFB&D or other protected titles.

ReadHear™: Originally released for the Mac in 2009, this is the new rebranding of gh's DAISY playback products. With new updates to the Windows-based gh Player, this software will also be known as ReadHear. The software supports playback of RFB&D and Bookshare texts, as well as other DAISY 2.02, Z3986 (DAISY 3), unprotected EPUB, and NIMAS files. When mathematical equations are imbedded in HTML or DAISY content using the MathML markup language, ReadHear will allow navigation through this content by word or character. RFB&D members are entitled to one copy of ReadHear for either the Macintosh or the PC as part of their membership. This RFB&D-branded copy will play only RFB&D titles. Future enhancement may allow for unlocking the RFB&D copy to play all supported content for a fee.


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