Dear Readers: My History with Aural Texts, Part 1
Georgina Kleege, UC-Berkeley

What is your phone doing?” a young man asked me recently. We were sitting in an airport waiting for a flight. His eyes had been drawn to the screen of my smart phone where there was some text. As he watched words were highlighted in yellow one by one as the text scrolled by automatically. The phone was in my lap and my own eyes were elsewhere, my white cane propped against my shoulder. I am legally blind and was using an app on my phone to read a text file of a book with synthesized voice text-to-speech technology. The voice was coming to me through the ear buds in my ears that he might have assumed were transmitting music. The visual display was there for people with other kinds of print disabilities who benefit from the highlighting and automatic scrolling to guide their eyes through the reading. I explained all this to my companion, and then proceeded to give him an impromptu tutorial in screen reader technology that’s a built-in accessibility feature of the iPhone. I showed him how I read an email, the teeny-tiny print of a web page, the turn-by-turn directions of Google maps. He whipped out his own iPhone, and started fooling around with it, describing several situations when this function would be useful to him even though his vision was not impaired.

I have this kind of encounter a couple of times a month, on the bus, in waiting rooms, coffee shops and restaurants. People used to question my aural reading practices. Back when I listened to recordings of human readers, people debated whether or not it was really reading. Later, as I adapted to the synthesized voice on my computer, people recoiled in horror that I could bear to listen to it for any length of time. But now things are changing.

I estimated that my companion was in his twenties, and he was more interested in learning a new way to use his smart phone than hearing my history with all the reading technologies that preceded this one. I knew that many of the talking book devices that I have used over my lifetime are now so antiquated that they would seem fantastical fictions to him. The first talking books I received, way back in the late 1960s, came on long playing vinyl disks. These were about twelve inches in diameter and played on a special record player, which ran at a slower speed than conventional records, allowing for more content on each disc. The record player, which was loaned to me by the National Library Service for the blind, was reminiscent of a toy record player, in that it had a bright colored plastic case and a handle so one could carry it around from room to room, though not while the record was playing. It was fairly rugged, but the needle arm bounced around at rather minimal provocations. Heavy footsteps or even a stiff breeze could make the needle skip and skitter across the vinyl.

By the 1970s, audio books for the blind became available on cassette tapes. Like the talking book records, these played at a slower speed. They also were recorded on four tracks rather than two. One listened to side one, flipped the cassette to listen to side two, then flipped a switched to listen to side one again, though this was now side three, and then flipped the cassette to play the final side. This meant that a single cassette could hold up to six hours of recording. the cassette players, also brightly colored plastic, were about 12 by 8 and portable in a clumsy way, though originally they had to be plugged in to work. Later they could run on batteries. They had raised graphics on the large buttons—not braille—for ease of use by young children and elderly adults. For many visually impaired teenagers and adults the toy-like colors and large buttons made these machines unappealing in the way they seemed to infantilize us, marking us out from our peers who might have similar machines but with different external aesthetics. By the early 1980s the smaller and more truly portable Walkman style players were adapted for the specialized cassettes. Except for a couple of extra switches, these were indistinguishable from the commercially available models. By the 1990s compact disc and CD players also became available. Ironically, this newer technology had some of the same drawbacks as the earlier record players. Even minor jolts and bumps made the CD skip, so while I acquired one of these machines, I preferred the cassettes.

Synthesized voice text-to-speech (TTS) technology came into my life in the late 1980s. The technology was invented a decade earlier by Ray Kurzweil. The original Kurzweil machines were large, slow and extraordinarily expensive. I attended a demonstration of one of the early machines in a New York City library and remember feeling simultaneously elated and utterly dubious. I could see how this technology would change my life, but I couldn’t quite imagine what would need to happen to make it available and manageable to someone like me. But through the late 1970s into the 1980s, with the advent of personal computers, the hardware became streamlined and the software became more affordable. It allowed me to hear whatever appeared on my computer screen. It also allowed me to scan books and then convert the image files into word documents which the synthesized voice then read to me. By the turn of the century, new handheld devices became available allowing me to download files I had scanned myself, or from a number of file-sharing websites and listen to them with the built-in synthesized voice. Now I can download these files wirelessly to my smart phone.

While I narrate this history in terms of one technology replacing another, there was a period of approximately twenty years when I was using multiple technologies at the same time …