Reading Audio Books And Why Stevie Wonder Watches TV


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“OK John, this is critical. I’m sorry to spring this on you but you have ten minutes to read the brief and then you will have to do the presentation.”

Ten minutes later …

“Sorry Boss, I can’t do the presentation.”

“Why not?”

“My Braille display isn’t working.”

“But you read it using speech, didn’t you?”

“Of course, but that’s not reading. Only reading using Braille is truly reading and you said I had to read the brief, not listen to it.”

This is a laughably absurd exchange which demonstrates that restricting the definition of reading to Braille reading only can be fraught with difficulty.

The Definition Of "Reading"

As pointed out by Simona Tolcheva in her recent article "Why listening to audio books is as good as reading Books", there are enough people around who wish to make that general distinction, not just in relation to Braille. Her main argument is that how one comes to consume a book is irrelevant and the fact that one has come to know the book by whatever medium results in the book having been read. Interestingly, the title of her article states that listening to audio books is as good as reading; one might have expected her title to say that listening to audio books constitutes actual reading books. Her arguments are based more on social inclusion and rely on a subjective definition of reading as opposed to an objective definition which would normally be proffered when discussing lexical semantics. The real question, in my opinion, is whether the distinction is useful, useless or even harmful.

This article will use hypothetical scenarios to help you consider whether only traditional methods of reading constitute reading at all. Having considered those scenarios, you might then be better able to decide whether a strict definition of reading matters. So let’s jump right in with the scenarios.
Consider whether each of the following scenarios involves reading. The hypothetical text is a short poem:

  • You read the poem on your Braille display.
  • You read the poem using your screenreader with speech output.
  • Someone else reads it aloud to you.
  • You listen to an audio book which contains the poem.
  • You listen to the poem as an excerpt from the audio book which is being broadcast in a radio programme.
  • You listen to an actor reading the poem live on the radio.
  • You listen to the poet reading/performing the poem on stage.
  • You made a recording of the poet’s stage performance and listen to the poem again from that recording.
  • The poet’s performance was professionally recorded and you listen to that recording as part of an audio book anthology of poems.

For each of these scenarios, how would you answer someone who asks you if you have ever read the poem? If that causes some difficulty, what about the question, “Do you know the poem?” Which question do you think matters more?

I can read Braille and I have an Orbit Reader 20 that I use from time to time but I am a lousy Braille reader and, as a result, over 99% of my reading is done using speech. During my career as a lawyer, I used Jaws with speech and did not use Braille at all; just as well since by the time I would have finished reading a standard lease, I would have needed a haircut. Incidentally, I have never met a Braille reader who can read half as fast as a lawyer is expected to read. What my clients and fellow professionals wanted to know was whether I had digested the text of letters, contracts, legislation and case reports; they were not interested at all in how I did that. Can the purists who say that only Braille reading constitutes reading say to my face that I didn’t really read anything in my professional work?

What the scenarios above show is that using the word “reading” to describe every one of those activities is perhaps stretching its meaning too far. However, as my own professional experience demonstrates, it seems not to matter whether whatever I did in order to digest text was reading or not. Let’s explore this a little further by looking at the other side of the literacy coin – writing.

Writing existed before reading. Without someone ever having written something down, there would have been nothing to read. Well, at least the person who wrote the first words knew how to read them (were the first words indeed “chicken” and “egg”?). This perhaps makes writing more important. If reading is the physically passive activity in literacy, then writing is the active component. But what constitutes writing these days?

When I was a young kid at school back in the middle ages, writing was only done using a pen or pencil (I had sight way back then). Learning to form the letters was just the beginning – learning the cursive (joined-up) style seemed to be more important to the teachers. They stressed that clear and legible handwriting was an essential skill and that employers would prefer those with good handwriting (of course, that did not apply to doctors). Using a typewriter was not considered as writing since the pressing of keys did not involve the same dexterity and skill as handwriting. Nowadays, the ubiquity of computer keyboards and touch screens has all but consigned handwriting to the trash can and the literacy skill of writing can these days easily be demonstrated using a keyboard. But what is the skill involved in using a keyboard? Surely, if it has anything to do with literacy, the skill is knowing what to type and not just perfecting the mechanics of pressing keys. That will certainly involve remembering how words are spelled but there is also grammar, sentence structure and style to consider. What about using spelling and grammar checking? Are those tools substituting for missing literacy skills? What about voice recognition dictation or using an amanuensis? If you dictate the text, can you say you have written something? Just as with reading, it all gets very messy when you focus on the mechanics of writing in order to define what writing is.

If there is a point to this whole debate about whether any particular activity involves reading or writing, it is related to the desire to be literate. For literacy, the question is not “have you read” but “can you read”. For
those of us who consume audio books or who read all sorts of text using speech output from a screenreader, we would generally scoff at the question “can you read”. The thing is, it is quite possible for a person to be very well-read by means of listening to audio books but be illiterate in terms of lacking the technical ability to read.

This is where we come back to the dominant activity involved in literacy – writing. How can you demonstrate your literacy? By writing. Even if you can’t physically write using any writing medium, you are literate as regards reading and writing if you can spell and your grammar is up to the mark. It seems clear, therefore, that literacy is an intellectual competency, the knowledge of the orthography and syntax of the language and not necessarily the physical ability to manifest reading or writing in any particular modality.
But does it matter how that technical knowledge and skill with spelling, grammar and style is achieved by a blind person? Does it have to be through Braille or does learning to spell using the features of a screenreader with speech count? Some might argue that I achieved literacy as a sighted person when I was young and so reading with speech would not have affected my literacy skills because I had already learned what I needed to know from sighted reading. Fair point, But that doesn’t explain how I have become literate in three foreign languages without using Braille since losing my sight completely. Literacy is possible without Braille and those who say that reading Braille is the only valid form of reading for literacy purposes should stop saying that right now.

Perhaps the idea that only reading print or Braille constitutes reading is derived from a mistaken understanding of the use of language in the first place. There is an assumption here that reading involves a special method or methods of acquiring knowledge of a given text. What if that is the wrong way of thinking about the word “reading”. Perhaps the correct approach was provided by Stevie Wonder in an interview I saw on TV about forty years ago. He happened to mention that he had watched something on TV and the interviewer quickly asked him if he was actually able to see something on the tV since he used the word “watched”. Stevie replied that he just used the word ‘watched’ because that is what you do with TVs. Using the word ‘listened’ would have sounded dumb, he said.

I agree. By the same token, I think it is dumb to say that one has listened to a book. One reads a book. The key here is that “reading” should not be considered in isolation. To read a book is simply a complete expression in its own right just as watching TV is an expression. It somehow misses the point to separate the verb from the noun. I’m quite sure that even those who bang the Braille-only drum would see no point in distinguishing between two books they had read previously, one in Braille and the other by audio book. I am sure that, in their mind, they would consider themselves as having read both books. Similarly, if they were to read an article using speech from a screenreader, I’m also sure they would not say that they had listened to the article instead of reading it.

I don’t think we need to resort to subjective definitions of reading as suggested by Simona Tolcheva in order to understand that reading comprises a variety of non-traditional methods of perceiving text. The eschewing of objective definitions results in Humpty Dumpty’s philosophy that a word can mean what you want it to mean. For those of us who are blind, Braille is one method of reading and, in my view, it is perhaps the quickest way to acquire the necessary skills involved in writing such as spelling. But since these skills can also be acquired using speech with screenreaders, however slowly, it is not fair or accurate to say that Braille is the only method of reading available to us or that listening to audio books does not constitute reading.

In this article, I have tried to show by using various scenarios that not all forms of acquiring knowledge of text can strictly be described as reading. The purpose of this article though is to demonstrate that the medium of how one comes to know text, and what you call the process, does not matter. But what matters most of all is that the championing of Braille as the only true means of reading is harmful to our community. If you are a sighted employer and you hear that important influencers in the blindness community take the view that there is a qualitative difference between reading Braille and reading using audio in whatever form, you might be disinclined to recruit a blind person who does not read Braille. Insisting that Braille literacy is the only literacy in town for those who can’t read print does a disservice to very able, intelligent, educated and literate members of our community who just happen not to read Braille.

I don’t care if you have read this article with your eyes, with your fingers, or whether it has been read aloud to you by a person, by eSpeak or your dog, what matters to me is what is now inside your head and if you still take the view that blind people who do not read Braille are not truly reading anything, perhaps it won’t matter to you too much now to tell them that.

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About The Author

After a career as a real estate lawyer in local government in Scotland, Paul is now a software developer, having also provided training in assistive technology for people with a visual impairment. When not fighting with inaccessible applications, he enjoys music production, learning languages and travelling.


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