A Library of Congress program meant to help the blind access audio and Braille books and resources is struggling to keep up with more efficient, newer technology, according to government auditors.
The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, which provides about 430,000 blind people with access to audiobooks or Braille resources, is not doing enough to offer awareness of and access to more innovative technical alternatives, according to a new GAO report released Monday. Providing more modern options, like electronic, refreshable Braille devices and more online, downloadable files, would not only be more efficient for readers, but could save the library money.
“Looking ahead, NLS is considering emerging technologies to meet user needs,” the report said. “Yet there are factors both beyond and within NLS’s control that may prevent the adoption of potentially cost-saving alternatives.”
Advocates for the blind and partially sighted defended the NLS as a vital resource, but acknowledged that new technology could help expand the offerings it is able to make available.
90 percent of NLS users received their resources as digital cartridges in FY2014, often through the mail, while a third of them still used cassette tapes that were being phased out, the report said. Only 10 percent used the NLS’ Braille and Audio Reading Download system, or BARD, that allow them to get resources directly from the Internet.
The dated methods may be fine for now – but are inferior to newer tech like BARD or simply using a smartphone as a text reader. These new programs are easier to use, last longer, and can offer users a larger selection, GAO said.
50 percent of NLS users capable of accessing BARD also do not use it because they lack the computer skills, the report said. Braille displays are also more expensive up-front, according to the report, even though newer models could make them much more affordable, slicing the prices from $1000 or $2000 to $300.
The NLS is also working on a software application called Media Manager that could automatically download resources from BARD to someone’s computer.
Despite the criticisms, the NLS is an essential service to the blind community, National Federation of the Blind Public Relations Director Chris Danielsen said. Danielsen has been blind since birth, and said he often uses NLS materials.
“In general I believe that the NLS has done an outstanding job of effectively using technology to deliver content to me, and I know many other blind people who feel the same,” he said. “One of the most important goals of NLS is to continue to produce more books and resources for the blind, since there is comparatively a small pool of them.”
NLS also currently lacks the resources to evaluate the effectiveness for their outreach, the report said. While the organization is using more advertising and partnerships, it does not have a plan to its success, making it difficult to optimally educate the blind about their digital options.
Danielsen personally uses his own Braille device to deal with “technical or dense nonfiction material.” But this type of device is not available to many blind people, forcing them to depend on NLS audiobooks or go without them.
If NLS pushed to allow people to more easily get Braille devices technology, it could greatly improve their quality of life, he said.
“Wider availability of refreshable Braille displays would be a huge benefit to patrons who read Braille, particularly since many of them cannot afford to purchase such devices…” he said. “It would be a boon to many blind people if the NLS could loan them such devices and provide Braille content to be read on them.”
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