REDMOND, Wash., Nov. 15, 2004 — Imagine what it would be like if more than 95 percent of all print publications, from textbooks to popular novels to magazines and daily newspapers, were simply unavailable to you. For millions of people worldwide who are blind or have other print disabilities such as mobility impairments or learning disabilities that prevent them from using traditional printed materials, that limitation is a fact of life. It doesn't have to be that way.
Last week, the Microsoft Accessible Technology Group (ATG) hosted a three-day international forum called, "Libraries for the Blind and Print Disabled: Moving Toward a Digital Future," which attracted library representatives from around the world and featured a keynote address by Bill Gates, Microsoft chairman and chief software architect.
Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates addresses the summit Libraries for the Blind and Print Disabled: Moving Toward a Digital Future," Redmond, Wash., Nov. 8, 2004.
Gates talked about the advantages of digital technology over traditional analog formats, such as audio tapes, explaining how digital technology can lower the costs of converting and distributing content, enable libraries to share information more easily, and make more information available to more people. Gates also pointed out that digital formats often provide a better user experience for people who are blind or have print disabilities, allowing many different people to access the same information online simultaneously and making it easy for individual users to locate specific information within texts.
New strategies to improve library services
The forum, held November 8-10 on the Microsoft corporate campus in Redmond, brought together approximately 75 representatives of libraries worldwide that provide services and programs for people with print disabilities. Attendees enthusiastically shared best practices and discussed new strategies for improving their services and programs. The event was cosponsored by the Digital Accessible Information System (DAISY) Consortium, formed in 1996 to lead the worldwide transition from analog to Digital Talking Books.
According to Madelyn Bryant McIntire, director of the Accessible Technology Group at Microsoft, the purpose of the forum was to facilitate a focused discussion among libraries that serve people who are blind or print disabled, one that could lead to a unified strategy for transforming library collections from analog formats into digital information that people could access from their personal computers and hand-held devices, such as Pocket PCs and Smartphones.
"Our goal for the event was to provide a forum where libraries could develop a common vision of a future where there are no barriers, and start planning for a digital technology infrastructure that would allow them to move from analog to digital formats," she said "An integrated, collaborative, global approach would increase exponentially the number of publications that are available to people with print disabilities and enable them to access information much faster."
Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates discusses the digital future of libraries for the blind and print-disabled, Redmond, Wash., Nov. 8, 2004.
Digital technology opens new opportunities
That's not just a theory. Two years ago, Gates accepted the Louis Braille Gold Medal from the World Blind Union in recognition of Microsoft's historical commitment to accessibility and its contribution to developing a digital library system for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB). The medal is awarded to individuals who have made an exemplary commitment to advancing the rights and freedoms of blind people around the world.
The CNIB Digital Library is one of the world's most advanced libraries of alternative content formats. When it debuted, more than 105,000 Canadians who are blind or print disabled gained instant access to thousands of books and magazines, and more than 40 newspapers. The new technology transformed the way the CNIB distributes information and resources, and provides users with more options for accessing content.
"For sighted people, technology makes access to information easier. For people who are blind, like me, it makes access possible," said Jim Sanders, president of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB). "Thanks to the CNIB Digital Library, I can now read a newspaper the same day it hits the newsstand, or read a best-selling book online instead of waiting for it to arrive in the mail."
The CNIB Digital Library combines all of the library's online services, including the CNIB catalogue and digital repository of books, in one unified, bilingual, Internet gateway. The online library also includes the Children's Discovery Portal, which enables children who are blind or visually impaired to play online games, get homework help, sample or read books online, and chat with other Canadian children who are blind.
Microsoft designed the CNIB Digital Library software to meet the accessibility needs of people who are blind or visually impaired. It works with leading assistive technology products, including screen readers and braille keyboards. It also works well with any back-end system, which means that other libraries could use the same software regardless of their technology infrastructure.
Microsoft plans to make the technical specifications and components of the CNIB distribution system available, free of charge, to any library for the blind and print-disabled that wants to use it. Libraries will need to pay for implementation and any customization they want to do to the original solution, but the software itself will cost them nothing.
The DAISY standard for talking books and multimedia publications represents another leading technology in this field that is respected and used by an ever growing number of libraries, including The CNIB in Canada and Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic in the United States. According to George Kerscher, Secretary General of DAISY, the consortium's vision is to make all published information available to people with print disabilities, at the same time and at no greater cost, in an accessible feature-rich format that is also easy to use.
"For a blind person reading a DAISY Talking Book, the functionality is very similar to a sighted person reading a print volume," Kerscher said. "They can easily get to chapters and sections, browse the text, skip the boring bits, go back to the interesting items, and essentially do everything you do with any complex print book."
Connecting special needs and mainstream issues
According to Gates, however, having the right technology is only part of the solution.
"Microsoft's vision is one of empowerment for everyone," Gates said during the question-and-answer session following his keynote. "Empowering people who are blind or otherwise visually impaired includes ensuring that our software incorporates a broad range of accessibility features and works well with screen readers and other assistive technology devices. It also means working with libraries and publishers around the world to eliminate barriers that keep a lot of printed information beyond the reach of the visually impaired."
Among the barriers standing in the way of a global digital library for people who are blind or print disabled is the lack of universal standards for converting, distributing, and maintaining digital media. Many libraries around the world are working to convert their collections from analog to digital, but the lack of common standards results in a lot of duplication.
Because many libraries are spending their limited resources to accomplish the same tasks, the amount of digital content they can provide is severely limited. In addition, many libraries, along with publishers and other content providers, are using formats or technologies that are not designed to work well with the systems others are using. This makes it impossible for libraries to share content freely, one of the key benefits of moving to a digital format.
Another missing element is any effective way to coordinate national copyright laws that protect the intellectual property of authors and publishers. For example, United States copyright law allows libraries to reproduce most printed material for use by people who are blind without paying any royalties, but that applies only inside the U.S. The forum hosted by Microsoft offered library representatives an opportunity to explore how they might create agreements that would enable them to share resources across international borders, and offer global solutions that respect and accommodate national copyright laws.
Gates advised the library representatives at the forum to look for ways to keep their ultimate digital solution for people who are blind or print disabled aligned as closely as possible with solutions being developed for mainstream markets.
"We ought to be able to connect mainstream issues with special needs, to create a bridge between the two," Gates said. "The advantages of accessing different types of digital information on a variety of devices are not limited to the visually impaired. The pioneering work being done to serve their special needs today could have widespread benefits for every user tomorrow -- and keeping the two closely connected will help lower costs and speed development."
At the forum, Gates reconfirmed that Microsoft is committed to doing whatever it can to help libraries leverage new technology to improve their distribution, convert their collections from analog to digital formats, and provide better service and more information to people who are blind or have print disabilities. Madelyn Bryant McIntire said the Accessible Technology Group will continue to lead that effort at Microsoft.
"Libraries are places of refuge," she said. "If we can help libraries solve the problems we discussed at the forum, we can make digital libraries places of refuge for people who are blind or have print disabilities. That's a goal worth working hard to achieve."