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Chapter 2. Reading with Disabilities

As book historian Robert Darnton (1989) noted in an article on the history of reading, “for most people throughout most of history, books had audiences rather than readers” (p. 93). That is, most people in the West between the fifteenth-century invention of the printing press and the nineteenth-century push for universal literacy accessed print by listening to someone else read. In this mediated print landscape, people with disabilities were not necessarily at a disadvantage in accessing the written word. Rather, it was the rise in literacy that also gave rise to print disability: a new condition of being denied unmediated, independent access to print.

Today we think of print disabilities—or print-related disabilities, or disabilities that affect reading, as they are also called—as impairments or differences that affect an individual’s ability to see, manipulate, or process print materials. Examples include vision impairments and blindness, differences in dexterity or the upper limbs, and dyslexia or learning disabilities.

“Print disability” is an interesting term, as it emphasizes the role of print in constituting disability. This phrasing reflects the social model of disability, a theoretical framework advanced by UK and U.S. disability activists since the 1980s (Shakespeare, 2006). The social model recognizes that individuals have differences and impairments, but it locates disability in the designed environment and ableist attitudes that exclude individuals with impairments. From this framework, for example, it is not blindness that is disabling but print that is, and a differently mediated landscape might be less disabling or differently so.

People with disabilities that affect reading may include, in the United States, the approximately 8 million people who are blind or have difficulty seeing print with corrective lenses, the 36 percent of people over sixty-five who experience severe disability (Brault, 2012), and the rising number of post-secondary students with disabilities (National Center for Education Statistics, 2015). Around the world, people with disabilities that affect reading include the approximately 200 million people with moderate to severe visual impairments (World Health Organization [WHO] & World Bank, 2011).

In the past century, people with visual impairments have gained access to print through processes of conversion. Sighted readers have dictated text aloud, print has been converted into braille, and books have been recorded onto tape. While these processes have provided direct access to print for visually impaired readers, they also represent diminished independence, flexibility, or choice for those readers. Human readers are available limited hours, a small percentage of print works are converted into braille,[1] and recorded audio books have a fixed speed and limited navigation.

Today, digital publications and modern assistive technology can provide these same readers direct, independent, and flexible access to mainstream format publications. Assistive technology is “any technology or device that enhances the capacities of its user (often a user with disabilities).” In the context of reading, assistive technology usually refers to screen readers, refreshable braille displays, text-to-speech software, voice command input, and other adaptive input (Rosen, 2017a).

A well-made, accessible digital publication can be used—read, navigated, searched—with equal facility by a tech-savvy user with or without disabilities. The shift to digital media as a dominant format can obviate the need for remediation for readers with disabilities.

Of course, disability is broader than print disability. People with impairments in other sensory capacities such as hearing, with chronic conditions or mental illness, and with other physical differences may all be part of disability communities. And, in a changing publishing landscape of multimedia and digital media, more forms of disability may be said to “affect reading.” Fortunately, this increasing complexity is balanced by the converging simplicity of electronic publishing formats. Today, a born-accessible digital publication can be used by and converted for a broad range of individual needs and preferences with readily available software. Accessibility standards, built on research and testing with a broad range of people with disabilities, account for these varying needs to the extent possible and provide guidelines for publications that can be equitably used by a diversity of readers. As digital publishing becomes more prominent, and if accessibility standards are incorporated, the developing media landscape has the potential to become one in which people with disabilities, once again, are not necessarily at a disadvantage in accessing the written word.


1. An estimated 1–7 percent of books are converted into accessible format worldwide (World Intellectual Property Organization, 2016), leading to what many call a “global book famine” for readers with print disabilities.return to text