Everyday Life,  Low Vision Products,  Technology

How Do Blind People Read? Reading Mediums and Tools for the Visually Impaired

How do blind people read? The short answer is however they can. Some people who are blind or visually impaired use braille and audiobooks, but often many of us read regular books with magnifiers or e-books.

Here I’ll describe several of the ways in which we can consume books and other media and their benefits and challenges.

E-Books

In my case, how I read varies by situation. If I’m reading for my own enjoyment, which I do often, I usually read e-books. Those are the books I have readily available to me through apps like Amazon Kindle and Google Books. Another fantastic source of e-books is a website called Book Share. This website provides e-books to those with barriers to reading including blindness and low vision, dyslexia, cerebral palsy, and others. When applying, you do need to provide documentation of your barrier, but this can include a vocational counselor, doctor, vision teacher, dyslexia counselor, etc. Once you download the books, you can import them into your favorite reader apps such as Moon+ Reader (my personal favorite on Android), Google Books, iBooks, and the hundreds of reader apps available on the Play Store and the App Store.

I also used e-books in school whenever possible. My school used Barns and Noble as its book supplier, so I used the Barns and Noble Yuzu Reader App and browser site. I also used Google Books and Amazon Kindle for both textbooks and other assigned reading. Google Books and Yuzu both have Read Aloud text-to-speech features that I used for textbooks. This text-to-speech with the voice sped up to 1.5x or faster really sped up reading and reduced eye strain when I had a large amount of information to read.

Apple Books also has this text-to-speech feature. Though Kindle does not appear to have this feature, it is partnered with Audible, which has a huge audiobook library.

If you have books in PDF format that you would like read aloud, you can use Moon+ Reader on both Android and iOS, and you can use Adobe Acrobat Reader DC on PC. You can download this app from the Adobe site here. This feature is not included in Adobe Reader Touch. I’m sure numerous other programs are available for this use, but these are the programs that I’m most familiar with.

Screenshot Collage
Screenshot collage of Google Books, Moon+ Reader, and Kindle Books with some settings for Google Books and Kindle visible.

One more tool that can be useful while using e-books is a program called Calibre. This program is meant to be a catalogue of your e-book collection with tools to download metadata, convert from one format to another, export, and even create its own content server allowing users to connect remotely via Android or iOS. I use this program to keep my books organized and sorted. I also use it along with the supporting Android app to transfer books to my phone and tablet.

Calibre can be downloaded from their website here. It is compatible with Windows (32 bit and 64 bit), MacOS, and Linux.

Calibre Companion can be found on Android here and on iOS here.

Audiobooks

As mentioned above, text-to-speech features and audiobooks are both excellent methods for consuming books. Text-to-speech is usually coupled with an e-book and reader at no additional cost, but audiobooks are read by an actual person and must be purchased. These tend to be well-done in my experience, but I still find myself bumping the speed up to 1.3x or higher. These methods reduce strain on the eyes, which allows a person to consume more material, experience less pain, and generally enjoy the experience more. The reader, or listener, can also complete other tasks while listening to an e-book, which increases productivity.

If you are an Amazon Prime member, I recommend that you download Audible, because Amazon Prime includes some audiobook titles and streams. Audiobooks can also be found in Google Play Books, Apple Books, Nook Audiobooks, Libby, and others. Libby is an app that allows you to register library cards from various libraries and borrow audiobooks and e-books.

DAISY

DAISY is an acronym for Digital Accessible Information System, and it is an initiative spearheaded by the National Federation of the Blind (NFB). This initiative seeks to provide audio books and players to the blind and print disabled. You can find more information on how the DAISY works directly from the NFB here.

Podcasts

Podcasts are similar to audiobooks but are usually shorter and can cover topics such as news, interviews, current research, personal anecdotes, fictional stories, or other various topics. I have personally used podcasts for news and current research off and on for years. Podcasts have become so prolific in the past few years that you can find any topic that fits your interests. They are fantastic for catching up on news or hearing an uplifting or inspirational story as you get ready for your day or during your commute. My preferred podcast app is Google Podcasts, but podcasts can be found in Google Play Music, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Pocket Casts, TuneIn Radio and so many others.

Traditional Print Books and Magnifiers

Traditional print books are the standard of course. They’re what most people have access to whether that be in school, the local library, or purchased from a store. Print is the format most of us grew up on, and I’ve heard many describe fondly the turn of a page or the smell of a book. I’m not sure how I ever managed to read so many books as a child and teenager without a digital magnifier. I would read with a flashlight or book light angled in the side between the book and my face, because my head often blocked the overhead lights. That description evokes quite fond memories. These days when I need to read a print book, I use a few other methods.

Collage of Magnifiers
Two different sized line magnifiers, a handheld circular magnifier with a light, and a digital magnifier.

Digital Magnifier: A digital magnifier is a device with a camera and screen on it that allows the text of a book to be enlarged and the colors to be altered as well. I have an entire post about what a digital handheld magnifier is. Digital magnifiers can also be a larger device with a camera mounted on a stand with a full-size monitor. These are less portable but can be handy if you do most of your studying or reading in the same room. One other option is a magnifier that connects to a computer and utilizes the computer’s monitor. These devices tend to be more portable than the full-size dedicated option as they can be used with the laptop you may already carry around, and they offer a much larger screen than the handheld option.

Magnifier (Non-digital): These magnifiers come in all shapes, sizes, and styles. They can be globe magnifiers that resemble the shape of a snow globe, long narrow line magnifiers that can be used on one line at a time, handheld like the typical magnifying glass with or without a light attached, stand magnifiers with or without a light which don’t have to be held in the hand, or even a full sheet magnifier that covers more area but with less magnification power. So many styles exist that you would be able to find one that suits your needs and reading style and position.

PDF Scans: Another option I’ve used is a PDF scan of a book. I’ve had textbooks that I absolutely could not find an e-book copy of. In these cases, I have used a scanner or a scanner app on my Android phone. These apps are accurate and can collate the entire book into a PDF file just like one you would purchase. I do not advocate the piracy of books, but when a publisher does not provide an e-book option of a book I’ve purchased, I feel that scanning the book is necessary and reasonable. Apps that I recommend for this are:

  • CamScanner (Android and iOS): I scanned the majority of one textbook and multiple single page handouts with this app, but now it appears to limit your scanning until you purchase a subscription.
  • Adobe Scan (Android and iOS): This app is the one I reach for lately. When a PDF is scanned into this app, the text is searchable and selectable; therefore, you can use it with one of the previously mentioned PDF text-to-speech options.

Braille

Braille is a tactile alphabet consisting of raised dots created in the 1800’s by a young French man named Louis Braille. It was adapted from an earlier military language called Night Writing. You can find more information on that here. I do not have much direct experience with Braille because I attended pubic school without the use of a vision teacher. I was exposed to Braille as a child when I attended a two-week camp at my state’s school for the blind and though I was fascinated with this tactile alphabet, I never pursued It further. Today, I would love to have the opportunity to learn Braille.

There are a few other options for consuming media such as having another person read to you, using screen readers such as ZoomText or those built into Windows and Mac OS, and I hope to cover these later.

For now, keep reading, stay curious, and thanks for reading.

Danielle Moulds

I have Albinism and am legally blind. I have a Master's degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. I'm currently pursuing my passion of writing through this blog, and I hope you'll check out more of my work.

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