Thursday, November 5, 2009

I'll Kurzweil your DAISY

Last night I wanted to see how easy it was to use Kurzweil to convert a DAISY book to mp3 but was stymied when I couldn't get version 4.0 of Kurzweil 3000 to properly open or convert the xml file of the DAISY book.

I have been trying to think of some way to say the above without it being so nerdtastic, but I am up to my proverbial elbows in e-text and have a hard time talking about it in any other terms. Besides the technical terms, the only other words I can think of when dealing with accessible e-text are, generally speaking, profanities.

People who are all excited about e-text being easy and accessible and act like anyone who still reads on paper is clearly a technophobe refusing to drag his knuckles into the 21st century (most of their gushing confuses me a bit, as they seem excited about getting rid of paper books because we now have e-books that. . . look like paper. I already have something that looks like paper. It's called paper. Google it) are rarely, if ever, talking about truly accessible e-text. They are talking about e-text that is available to non-LD readers who only want to read commercially popular text. Which is nice and all, but if you really want me to be excited about e-text in needs to be more than just a different format for the same people to read the same things. The (as yet unrealized) promise of e-text is that it can provide access to people who—due to physical or cognitive differences—have difficulty accessing traditional print. And that's a lot more complicated than making it possible for you to easily carry the collected works of James Patterson in your carry-on the next time you go on vacation.

I believe that access to e-text should be seamless for the students who need it. They shouldn't be the ones downloading extra software and conversion programs and text-to-speech programs and troubleshooting and solving issues (never mind having to scan the books themselves). Yes, these are great things for students to learn and know how to do in order to learn independence and self-sufficiency. But asking a student to do that in order to read a novel for English class is equivalent to asking a non-LD student to build a printing press before she can do her reading. It's a completely unreasonable barrier to access.

Which has me running between multiple computers on two different floors and keeping so many different tabs open in my browser that I swear I heard Firefox sigh with relief when I finally closed it. And the only thing I'm trying to figure out is how to easily make a novel accessible via a text-to-speech program with curricular reading supports. A simple novel—one that's already been scanned and converted to DAISY, even, which is the hard part (and a feat I'll be attempting soon). We're still many, many hurdles away from easily providing access to textbooks electronically (one of the biggest of those hurdles being textbook publishers).

It feels like this should be easier than it is. When I read about e-books (which I’ve been doing a lot) people mention again and again the potential e-text has for providing access to people with disabilities. But they’re rarely talking about cognitive disabilities, and they’re almost never talking about curricular access.

My boss keeps telling me that once we've really got this figured out we'll be able to publish and present at conferences. Conferences that are some place a lot more glamorous than Hartford. And if we do get this process anywhere near seamless, it would be very exciting and definitely put us at the forefront of this issue. But as I’m working on this it’s not so much “one step forward, one step back” as it is “one step forward, unscalable brick wall."

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