By guest author Deanna McCusker, Head of User Experience, Benetech
My mom, Carol, and I have always shared a love of reading, often suggesting books to one another that we enjoyed. When I would visit, she would often leave paperbacks on the dresser for me to take home. I didn’t always read them immediately; I’m a busy professional and besides, how interesting could a story about a World War II nurse going back in time to 18th century Scotland be?
When I finally picked it up, I couldn’t put it down. I realized Outlander was actually a series, and Mom and I have read and discussed each new book as it came out. The ninth book has yet to be published, but when it’s announced, Mom will be the first to download it from Bookshare.
When we began this literary journey, Mom was in perfect health. A few years back, however, she began to suffer from macular degeneration. To her extreme frustration, she also started to lose her hearing. She is otherwise still a young seventy-four-year-old.
This change in health has impacted her life (and mine) in a number of ways. She still drives, but not at night and knows the day is coming when she will have to stop altogether. She used to listen to books on tape while driving or working on her favorite hobby, quilting. But recently she has found it increasingly difficult to understand the narrators, especially if they had accents or unusual speech patterns. When Outlander became a TV series, I was thrilled to share it with her, but she found she couldn’t hear it well enough to understand the Scottish accent, and trying to read the subtitles on the screen was too tiresome. She gave up.
As her tech-savvy daughter, I have been trying to help her find ways to cope, such as purchasing special speakers for her television and helping her learn to use Uber. When I took a new job with Benetech, I quickly realized that Mom was a perfect candidate for Bookshare: a senior with a lifelong love of books experiencing age-related disabilities. And an iPad.
On Mother’s Day, I gave her a one-year membership to Bookshare, the world’s largest online library for people with blindness, low vision, dyslexia, and other print disabilities. Her doctor verified that her failing eyesight qualified as a print disability. I bought her a copy of Voice Dream Reader and demonstrated the features that would help her read: larger font sizes, customized colors for better contrast, and volume and speed control for the text-to-speech (TTS) voices. I pointed out that you can speed up the voices, as I’ve seen many blind Bookshare users do, but Mom wanted the TTS to go slower. I was surprised, but didn’t question it.
The following Sunday, during our weekly phone call, Mom told me she was really enjoying Bookshare, that she had downloaded two books already, and how nice it was to be able to read again. Over the course of the next several months, Mom continually told me how thankful she was for Bookshare. She found all eight of the Outlander series books and is reading them again while we wait for the ninth one. She was so happy that she asked how to donate to Benetech.
I finally had to ask – why do you like it so much? What is it about Bookshare that works better for you than other e-readers like iBooks or Kindle?
Because I can’t see or hear well, I’m experiencing a lot more cognitive overload than I used to. With Bookshare’s TTS voices, I can set the speed a little slower to give my brain time to hear and comprehend. Once I got used to the pattern of the TTS voice – it is very even-toned – I no longer had to cope with the cadence and variation in human voices. I can enjoy books as fully as I used to without effort!
Do you have a parent, grandparent, or friend whose eyesight is failing, who can no longer hold a print book comfortably, or has multiple age-related disabilities? Anyone with a qualifying print disability can become a Bookshare member and get access to over 490,000 accessible ebooks. Bookshare is available to all U.S. students for free and at a low cost to adults who qualify.
Bookshare is the world’s largest online library of accessible ebooks for people with print disabilities. Through its extensive collection of educational and popular titles, specialized book formats, and reading tools, Bookshare offers individuals who cannot read standard print materials the same ease of access that people without disabilities enjoy. In 2007 and 2012, Bookshare received two five-year awards from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), to provide free access for all U.S. students with a qualifying print disability. The Bookshare library now has over 490,000 books and serves more than 400,000 members. Bookshare is an initiative of Benetech, a Palo Alto, CA-based nonprofit that develops and uses technology to create positive social change. www.bookshare.org
Benetech is a different kind of technology company. We’re a nonprofit whose mission is to empower communities in need by creating scalable technology solutions. Our work has transformed how over 400,000 people with disabilities read, made it safer for human rights defenders in over fifty countries to document violations, and equipped environmental conservationists to protect ecosystems and species all over the world. And our Benetech Labs is working on the next big impact. Visit www.benetech.org.