Reading seems like a simple activity. One that is so simple that it's probably taken for granted by most people. But if you're somebody with severe physical limitations reading can become a chore. Whether it's holding a book, turning the pages, or both the simple act of reading can be a major problem.
Over the years alternatives have emerged that attempted to solve this problem. Book holders combined with hand splints or mouth sticks was a combination I used frequently in college but it was quite tiring keeping the book open and holding the pages in place. There were also electronic page turning devices where you could place a book in the device and then use a switch to turn the page. These devices had trouble turning single pages sometimes but overall they work reasonably well. But of course to read you have to sit wherever the device is set up.
As e-books have become more and more popular e-book reading software has been made available for computers (both PCs and Macs). Since there are several ways for people with physical limitations to easily access their computers these days using software like this would seem like a great solution. It really is - if you don't mind reading on your computer. My problem is I do enough on my computer already so I don't want to be tethered to my computer for reading as well. Also growing in popularity are audio books. Audio books can be played on a variety of mobile devices such as cell phones and MP3 players. So you could read virtually anywhere and not have to worry about turning pages and so on. But you might not be able to find the book you want in audio book form. More importantly, you might be one of those people, like myself, who would much rather read a book as opposed to listen to it being read by somebody else.
Finally, there are electronic e-book readers. You may have heard of the Amazon Kindle or Sony Reader. These are probably the two most well-known electronic e-book readers. You can put hundreds of books on each device and carry them with you wherever you go. Each of these devices have their strengths and weaknesses but apparently both do a pretty good job at what they were designed to do - be a mobile reading device. I personally haven't had a chance to use either of these devices so I can't comment on their accessibility. But from what I've read and seen online about them I do think it's possible that they may work for some people with physical limitations. But in the last few months I've unexpectedly stumbled onto another device that I think is the best solution of them all. Would you believe it's the iPod touch? Well start to believe because it's true.
When I say iPod touch this also includes the iPhone because they both can run the same e-book reading applications. But for the purposes of this article I'll just refer to the iPod touch.
Using Apple's "App Store", which is part of the iTunes Store, you can download applications for your iPod touch that were created by third parties. Some are free while others have a small fee associated with them. Right after the App Store opened in early July I immediately noticed a few e-book reading applications were immediately available and some of them were free! I did a little reading up on these applications and watched some demonstration videos and I was immediately impressed.
The e-book reader app that I've been primarily using is called "Stanza" so I will focus on that in this article but I will mention some of the other ones that are available throughout the article. Stanza works in conjunction with a (currently) free desktop version that is available for both PCs and Macs. The desktop version has every feature that the iPod Touch version has plus a few more. So if you're inclined to read on your computer I highly recommend the desktop version of Stanza. Stanza contains built-in reading support for Amazon Kindle, Mobipocket, Microsoft LIT, PalmDoc, Microsoft Word, Rich Text Format, HTML, and PDF formats, as long as no DRM is present. The Stanza website FAQ has a list of free e-book sites that contain literally thousands of e-books in one or more of those formats. There's also Bookshare.org which I'll discuss later in this article.
To get e-books from your computer to your iPod touch you must open them in the Stanza desktop application. Using your WiFi connection Stanza for the iPod touch will be able to "see" whatever books you have open in the Stanza desktop application. You can then simply download them to your iPod touch. If you don't use a WiFi connection you'll still be able to transfer e-books as long as your computer has a wireless networking card installed (all relatively recent Macs do) - the Stanza FAQ has information about this too. Once you get the hang of this it's pretty easy to do and you'll have your iPod touch filled with books in no time!
You may run into formatting issues with some e-books. Some formats translate better than others. Within the Stanza desktop application you can convert files to many different formats. You'll probably need to play around with this a bit to find out what format looks best to you on your iPod touch. The Stanza website also has some suggestions on how to improve the formatting. Personally as long as the text is legible I'm happy. So I really don't care if the line breaks are perfect and whatnot.
If formatting is really a big deal to you and you can't get satisfying results from Stanza I suggest the eReader app. The catch with that app is you can only read e-books in the eReader PDB format. This includes eReader.com, its partner Fictionwise.com, and any site that has PDB formatted e-books. This may sound limiting but eReader.com and Fictionwise.com have pretty large selections of commercial e-books and all are priced below what you would pay for a hardcover or soft cover version of the book. Then there's the free PDB sites out there as well. So while there is a larger selection of e-books that Stanza can read, most people will probably be happy with the number of titles the eReader app supports. I've actually had an account with the eReader.com for a few years and used their Mac desktop client to occasionally read e-books on my Mac so I was already quite familiar with them. I should also mention that you can download e-books from the Internet directly to your iPod touch from within the eReader app itself which is pretty handy. Check out the eReader for iPhone and iPod touch FAQ for more information on how to do this or any other questions you may have about the eReader app.
With the advantages that eReader has (perfectly formatted books and direct download) you might wonder why I even bother with Stanza? That's where Bookshare.org comes in. Bookshare.org is a not-for-profit organization that provides e-books for persons with print disabilities. They believe that people with print disabilities deserve the same ease of access to books and periodicals that people without disabilities enjoy. The Bookshare.org library provides print disabled people of the United States with legal access to over 40,600 books and 150 periodicals that are converted to Braille, large print or digital formats for text-to-speech audio. Some books are also available to people outside the USA - see the international information page for full details.
The selection of books is huge and you can find just about any book you can think of, including usually all of the New York Times current best-seller list. And if they don't have a book you can request it and they will do what they can to get it for you. There is a sign-up fee of US$25 and a yearly subscription fee of US$50. You only have to pay the sign-up fee once. These charges are used to cover the costs of running the organization. You must provide proof of your disability in the form of a doctor's signature in order to qualify. Once you are a member there is no limit to how many books you can download. Whenever I download a book I choose the DAISY Digital Talking Book Format. The DAISY Digital Talking Book Format works well with text-to-speech technology (like Apple's excellent VoiceOver screen reading technology) but can easily be converted to the HTML format using Bookshare's included software. Then Stanza takes over and does the rest as I explained above. I've already downloaded more books than I could probably read in a lifetime and it only cost me US$75!
Now that we've gotten all of that out of the way we come to the most important issue -- accessibility. With Stanza (or eReader) it's extremely simple to read a book. All you have to do is simply tap on the right or left side of the screen to turn the page forward or backward respectively. You can customize the font, font size, background color, and text color. I prefer white text on a black background because it's easy to see. And you can make the font size huge if you wish if you have trouble seeing. Each application offers several options to customize your reading experience. For options to help with touching the screen, see iPod Touch Ideas For Stylus And Mouth Stick Users.
Finally, there's even a method for reading e-books on an iPod Touch that doesn't require any touching at all. There is another app available called "Bookshelf" that has a vertical scrolling feature. Basically you just tap a button and the text starts scrolling at a speed of your choice. So if you can't use a stylus or a mouth stick you need only have somebody tap the start button and then you can read to your heart's desire! The Stanza desktop application has a horizontal and vertical scrolling feature but it is not currently present in the Stanza iPod touch app. Apparently there's a chance this feature could be added in a future update. I would probably use this feature on occasion if it were available to me but it's not vital for me so I'm content to wait for the developers of Stanza to add this feature rather than pay US$10 for Bookshelf (although I will if I have to).
Before investing in an iPod Touch I suggest trying one out first if possible to see if it's accessible enough for your needs. If you don't know somebody that has one that you could play with there's always an Apple Store or perhaps any place that sells them.
So I hope I've demonstrated how effective the iPod Touch can be as a accessible e-book reader. Even if you're not physically disabled it's a great option for reading e-books. But if you are you're probably not going to find too many options that are better.
- Paul Natsch