Monthly Archives: March 2014

The practical challenges of blind academics

Ok. So I admit I should be working on my thesis right now, but I felt the need to write this as I don’t know how much awareness there is out there about academic challenges for the blind.

I am not saying that being a professor or being part of a mainstream master or PHD program is impossible. On the contrary, academia is a very prejudice free environment where everybody is judged on equal criteria. And as such, it is a very liberating field to be in. But there are practical issues which make the presentation somewhat challenging. By presentation, I mean in the form of a thesis or paper.

Firstly, there’s all the literature. In order to get a good background for the research you’re about to embark on, it is essential to get acquainted with what has already been done in the field. You wouldn’t want to double another project. And the literature serves as inspiration.

To obtain this literature, you need to start off doing some library searches. Now this process is digitalized, but there is the problem of not all library systems being screen reader friendly. So, you might sit there, unable to find anything useful unless you’ve got someone sighted with you.
Let’s say you’ve found what you need. Most of your stuff is written in print, but there are some e-books. You feel your heart leap of joy, because e-books can be read on your computer. However, your heart sink when you find out that the pdf is not screen reader friendly. And you cannot obtain an RTF file from the publisher, because there’s the issue of copyright. And how do they know that you aren’t gonna print out the book and sell it to every Tom Dick and Harry?

There are a few ways you can solve your problem of getting the pile of what feels like blank pages into something you can work with. If you live in Norway, or another country with a good welfare system, you may have production rights at your library for the blind, meaning you can ask to have those books made into audio, braille, or electronic format. There is only one problem. These libraries may need a few months to produce the books. And you may need the book urgently. Working on a continuous research project, you don’t necessarily know what books you’ll need three months ahead.

So how about a reader? If you have one who is efficient and professional, and if the government or university give you money to pay those unlimited or a sufficient bynber if hours, great. I personally enjoy this benefit. But what if you live somewhere that isn’t the case? Or you just can’t find good people for the task? Then, let’s hope you have a scanner and can scan in your literature.

Hurrah! You now have all your theory made into the accessible format of your choice. Let the research begin. The time it has taken to get everything has set you back a few weeks, but you are efficient and professional, hopefully, so you can do this. You emerge into your literature but being blind, skim reading is not an option. You have to read every single line of the chapter or article. And only when you know the content, can you make proper notes. Everyone does this a little differently of course, but from experience, I know that I can only start sourcing quotes and so on after reading each section of a text. I don’t know what’s on the next line if I don’t know the text, so the times I’ve quoted something, I’ve found myself continuing to quote the next line and the next because I’ve taken something completely out of context. The painstaking process of accounting for where you found every single idea, which is annoying at the best of times for a journalist like me, takes oh so much longer because of this.

Another challenge is when you use a commercial audio book as part of the literature, for example a biography. Page numbers are not read and there is no standardized way of referring to such sources.

Perhaps not surprisingly, all the factors mentioned above, result in it taking longer for a blind person to write out an extensive project than it does for a sighted person. One can of course hand things in at the same times everyone else, and it is not unreasonable to have a deadline on a blind academic. However, that may at times completely stop other social activities, because the extra time needs to be taken out of somewhere.

I don’t have any good suggestions as to how the practical side of academia could be made easier for a blind person. But like with fictional books, the publishers could make the job a lot easier for us by granting RTF files if a system of water marking could be implemented in some way to ensure that the book didn’t get printed and sold. But, and I say this in fear of making a sweeping statement here, most blind people in this situation would be so happy to get to be able to work with the books that selling them probably wouldn’t be on their mind. And if we even bought the RTF files for the price of an e-book, or there could somehow be a borrowing system, it would make the system even more equal

I’d love to get tips from blind academics on how they manage their practical work, and ideas on how things could be made a little easier in that regard.