For many, the long pandemic of 2020 has resulted in significant Zoom, social media, Netflix, and other remote technology fatigue. For avid readers who are blind or visually impaired, however, the nationwide shutdowns are providing time to rediscover the value of remote access to tens of thousands of best-selling braille and talking books and magazines.
The U.S. Library of Congress National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled (NLS) program, a longtime free service for Americans with disabilities living both in the U.S. and abroad, has rapidly caught up with today’s technology-driven culture.
Its original 1970s-era large talking books discs (think vinyl LPs) morphed into 80s- and 90s-era four-track audio cassette tapes and, in the 2000s, became digitized into small cartridges played on a much-improved but still bulky proprietary digital NLS talking book player.
With the emergence of smartphones like the Apple iPhone in 2007, NLS talking books and magazines for the first time became available for download to smart devices through the Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) Mobile app for iOS and Android.
In this economically difficult year for many Americans, cost-cutting is rising on the priorities list – and this can be doubly true for people who are blind, who may find a monthly subscription to Audible books becoming a luxury item behind rent, food, and other bills.
That is where the true value of the NLS program lies for people with a print disability. Available through local libraries, signing up for the NLS Braille and Talking Books program is a simple and straightforward process. Once approved, applicants can immediately begin accessing everything from Consumer Reports, The Economist, People, and Rolling Stone to tens of thousands of unabridged bestselling books and novels.
Here the BARD mobile app really shines. With just a few finger swipes and taps, BARD Mobile users can instantly download titles to their phones and tablets. The interface is very accessible and intuitive; books can be searched by title, author name, and/or ISBN number. A simple double-tap adds desired books or magazines to your “Wish List” and, depending on the speed of your wi-fi or cellular connection, downloads it to your device in less than a minute with an audible doorbell chime to let you know the title is on your “Bookshelf.”
Virtual bookmarks can be inserted on desired pages; you can speed up and slow down the human readers – all of whom are professionally trained and highly skilled volunteers – and enjoy unabridged content to your heart’s content, including descriptions of photo captions and charts, and reference materials such as glossaries.
Braille readers are also supported, as NLS has content available in digital Braille Ready Format (BRF) allowing readers to access them through their chosen braille displays. Although the coronavirus pandemic has unquestionably been a dark cloud in daily life, for people with print disabilities, the rediscovery and appreciation of the free NLS BARD Mobile and Online program can provide a welcome mental escape from today’s difficult reality. To apply to the NLS program, visit the NLS home page at https://www.loc.gov/nls/, click on Enrollment and Equipment, then Register for BARD, Get BARD Mobile. Or call the NLS toll-free number at 1-800-NLS-READ for more information on how to apply through your local library.