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Library and Educational Support Services For Blind and Vision-Impaired Persons in The New Millennium

Editor's Note: Editors Note: Paul Thiele is an Advisor in the Crane Resource Library at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC

Two news stories at the beginning of the new millennium created a lot of buzz in the world of blind persons. They concerned the possibility of sight restoration by mechanical means as in the Stevie Wonder story or via the re-growth of stem cells in damaged retinas described in a recent article on research at the University of Toronto. But careful reading of both stories shows just how far off any practical applications still are and that neither development may ever see the light of day due to the many barriers and hoops in the way.

While many of our friends and colleagues may be excited about the prospect of sight restoration, most of us have to face the reality of living our lives and getting information by alternate means. In the area of library and educational support services, the most exciting development of the new Century is actually more than five years old. It is the development of digital, structured talking books on the DAISY system. DAISY is encoding and compacting software, developed in Sweden, which permits the recording of audio books with instant access to parts of the text similar to the way people use print books. DAISY books are also highly compacted so that one standard CD offers playback times of more than thirty hours and bell-clear digital sound. DAISY books are virtually indestructible, take up far less room than the standard cassette and shipping is cheaper and more convenient. But most of all, blind and vision-impaired readers deserve the DAISY system because it provides access to a world of written materials never before practical as audio books. Suddenly dictionaries, cookbooks, repair manuals, poetry, the Bible and even the dreaded Income Tax Guide are easily and elegantly accessible as audio books.

But unfortunately in the area of library and educational support services, the barriers toward reality are often man-made and political rather than scientific. While the DAISY System was ready to be the next generation of audio book some five years ago, and while it is being slowly phased in in Scandinavia and Britain, authorities in North America have decided instead to strike committees to deliberate every detail right down to cataloguing standards. This is contrary to most practices in Library Science and contrary to how new platforms for the talking book were introduced in the past. Similarly, the publication of Braille materials has to be simplified, modernised and made more economical. The concept of paperless digital Braille was being touted as the next step. Unfortunately the techies and dreamers took over and the idea of an inexpensive, uncomplicated refreshable Braille display remains unresolved. Currently, paperless Braille displays are dependent on computer memories and cost more than $5,000, putting them out of reach of most of the potential readership. As with the automobile, where the trend currently is to the retro look, we must rationalise that for some of our information needs, we should look back to technology we had some time ago for simplified solutions and easy use rather than constantly looking for the one perfect, all-inclusive medium. Possibly one such development will finally be the release of a newly designed and refined optical to digital converter or Opticon. I would like to see a unit which is light, portable and which combines the scanner and digital array in the same hand-held unit and which would have a large enough screen to accommodate two or three fingers. This would increase reading speed and comprehension.

In the field of education, the teaching of Braille needs some serious research. New and more effective ways of teaching Braille even to the older adventitiously blinded person must be developed in order to promote Braille as a more universal medium. The other issue is that we should discontinue the association between the ability to read Braille and literacy. There are thousands of blind and visually impaired persons who for a variety of reasons will never be able to use Braille as a primary reading means, but who certainly are not illiterate. The Internet, the virtual classroom, correspondence courses via e-mail, and the virtual library with talking books which may be downloaded from a digital master collection and played back on tiny MP3 players are all very real possibilities within the next few years. But we must also be aware that there is a baseline and a buy-in point similar to the development of the car. If people had not bought the Model A Ford, we would never have seen the development of the Taurus.

For library and educational support services, technology offers some of the most exciting promises. But we have to buy in one step at a time.

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