Hidden Opportunity: Mobile Reading Solutions for the Blind
In some recent research for Benetech.org (a US-based NGO which manages one of the largest digital libraries for the print disabled) I was surprised to learn there are roughly 400 Million individuals worldwide who suffer from visual impairment. That includes the blind and those suffering from dyslexia and low vision. Across the globe and estimated Forty five million people are blind, including 1.4 Million children below the age of fifteen.
In the developed world there are numerous technologies to help the blind and visually impaired “read” books, periodicals, and Web based content via computers and mobile devices. Advances in Text To Speech, Braille interfaces, and navigable audio books allow millions to access information in ways not previously possible. But software and hardware for the visually impaired often runs into the thousands of dollars.
The major roadblock to accessing digital content in the developing world, where more than ninety percent of the world’s visually impaired live, are affordability and access. A more affluent, English speaking resident of India with a desktop computer or smartphone has access to much of the print disability technology and content available in the developed world. But this is not the case for the wide majority of the poor. Their visual learning is often restricted to what others care to read to them and to what content is available locally in hard copy form.
Blind and visually impaired children are at a distinct disadvantage in school without the visual aids and technology that many children in the West now take for granted.
Mobile solutions for visually impaired
With such a high rate of adoption in the developing world, cell phones offer a potential solution to address the challenges of content access and learning for the visually impaired. Much screen reader and book reading software for the visually impaired on mobile phones already exists. Code Factory’s Mobile Speak and Nuance Talks are available for Symbian, Windows Mobile, and RIM mobile platforms. Their mobile software packages are also available in numerous languages. Pioneers like T.V. Ramen of Google are developing innovative screen reader and geo navigation technologies (e.g., Eyes Free) on Android platforms.
A variety of Optical Character Regognition (OCR) and object recognition software for cell phones also exist, allowing the user to point a cell phone camera at written material or an object to have it read or verbally identified . Examples include the Knfb mobile OCR reader and LookingAid Mobile by iVisit.
The mobile vision field is advancing quickly just as mobile phone price points are coming down. Hence the time is right for the emergence of an “mDisability” sector to target reading and learning opportunities for less affluent print disabled communities worldwide.
Barriers to mDisibility adoption
Before jumping in with both feet, however, a number of practical challenges must be addressed.
First, the above mentioned (mostly) smartphone solutions are still not affordable and/or available for the wide majority of the poor in the developing world. So over the short term leveraging mobile for the visually impaired will require screen reader and voice recognition technologies being built directly into low cost feature phones. They must be accompanied by design improvements to assist the handicapped user. Over the long term, and as smartphones become more affordable and widespread, there are also opportunities to make use of existing screen reading technologies for higher end Nokia, Android, and Apple phones – not to mention their downloadable apps.
Beyond technology and device barriers are some additional challenges.
The first is copyright. Depending on the country, copyright protections may prevent access to books and periodicals for free or at a low enough cost for many. Unlike in the United States, where access to books and periodicals is often free for the visually impaired, many countries still do not allow for such accommodations. Without the widespread availability of low cost content, a mobile device with reading capabilities is useless to the print disabled poor.
Second, because the current diversity of reading file formats is not standardized across regions and devices, many will be unable to read content even if openly available and cheap.
Third, even where books and periodicals are made available in appropriate formats, digitized versions may not yet exist. Even in the USA, free content does not include the cost of reading hardware, software, and subscription fees charged by some digital library distributors.
Finally, and perhaps most important from an educational perspective, is the integration of mobile learning tools with relevant learning processes and curricula. While having access to books and periodicals is one thing, guided and productive learning for the visually impaired student is another. Schools and other educational institutions will need to not only make their content available, but tie that content directly to locally and linguistically appropriate learning systems.
mDisibility holds hope and promise
Overall, mDisability offers unprecedented educational pathways for the print disabled and visually impaired citizens of the global South. Imagine visually challenged children and adults having 24/7 access to up to date books and periodicals and specially designed learning software on their phones? How many millions more could be educated and enjoy the benefits of leisure reading if local content in local languages was made readable anywhere, anytime?
The vision to bring millions of visually impaired individuals into the mainstream reading community, literally allowing them to carry learning in their pocket, is a grand one. But the march of mobile and advancements in mDisability might just point the way.
Paul Lamb is a Man on a Mission