With the quality of synthetic voices improving every year, a common question I receive is, "How long do you think human narration will be around for?"
It's anybody's guess and even though technology seems to wait for no one, human narration will not likely become extinct altogether.
In fact, it has been a cornerstone in providing accessible reading to people with print disabilities. TBL has had a 30-year history of producing over 2,500 human narrated recordings. Over 700 of these recordings have been made into digital format and contributed to CELA's collection (CNIB's distribution arm). CELA's core collection, approximately 90,000 items, is comprised mostly of human-narrated audio and braille.
These recordings are particularly important for those with visual impairments (blindness, glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy) as well as those with a "print-disability." This includes people who are prevented from reading standard print because of learning difficulties such as dyslexia, autism and brain injuries, as well as physical limitations such as arthritis, MS, Parkinson's and spine injuries where one may not be able to hold a book or turn its pages.
I've heard time and again from TBL patrons that nothing beats listening to a real human voice when reading a DAISY book, depending on the content. With all the technological advances being made, one can still tell the difference, especially when hearing is the only sense you may have that enables you to read.
We believe that it's real people who can best communicate life-giving messages to others, especially when it's material about the intimate joys and tears of the Christian life. While there may be a distant future when robots with artificial intelligence are used to preach the Gospel, it is unimaginable for us to give up on reaching the millions who still yearn for heart-to-heart message from a narrator who cares.
For sure, text-to-speech (TTS) capability serves an amazingly quick and efficient purpose when the need for quick information acquisition is required such as for ingesting news, weekly magazines and e-learning purposes. However, the preference for a human voice really lies where one is listening to longer works like audio books and the experience can be enhanced by emotional expression such as fiction, devotionals, and works that are inspirational in nature.
TBL's focus on Christian literature in a variety of genres fills this gap in CELA's collection: we are the only charity in Canada solely dedicated to the publishing of Christian audio with the added importance that our books are in accessible format.
This issue of how technology is affecting accessible reading was explored at a workshop I attended at the Ontario Library Association's (OLA) conference - a nation-wide event that happens once a year for librarians and publishers across Canada. Earlier this year, thousands attended carefully chosen workshops, lined up for author signings and snatched up free books in the exhibition pavilion. It was no doubt an inspiring time to delve into the world of reading, especially into accessible reading.
The workshop was titled, Assistive Technology "Petting Zoo": Reading Tools Used by Patrons with Print Disabilities given by CELA's Executive Director, Michael Ciccone.
Attendees were given an overview of accessible reading formats and CELA's collections, services and usage. The "petting zoo" aspect came in the form of a unique room arrangement where participants could circuit through six stations: accessible reading applications, DAISY players and software, screen reading software, magnifiers, literacy support software and Braille displays. This allowed participants an up close presentation of each accessible reading tool in action with an explanation.
Ciccone revealed that in terms of CELA's collection, 75% of its use is still physical. This means the print-disabled population is still very much dependent on devices like DAISY/Victor readers and the use of Braille for accessible reading.
While that may be the case, he also asserted the catalyst for change will be technology. It is only a matter of time before assistive technologies like Google Home/Assistant and Alexa will change the face of accessibility. But, how much it will impact accessible reading is less known. Costliness associated with the development of new delivery systems of these devices will also likely impede how soon these can be made available for those with print disabilities.
DAISY won't be going away too soon and may not ever. It has been the technical standard of alternate formats for three decades now and can accommodate both human narration and synthetic speech.
From what I have witnessed, much depends on when one's vision loss occurs in life and one's level of comfort with technology. Once a DAISY player is obtained, only simple training is needed for same day independent reading to be achieved, much to the relief of patrons who rely on it.
And as long as there is Christian literature, our TBL volunteers are committed to producing and promoting it with care in audio book format for people with visual impairments, print disabilities and beyond with the vision of renewing hearts and minds in Christ.
Stay tuned for my Tech Talk: Part Two where I will discuss the various reading tools that people with print-disabilities can use.
Executive Director for TBL
Our Dedicated Volunteers
Volunteer narrators and editors digitally record and help produce audio works directly into DAISY format. With so much care and heart for this ministry, some of our volunteers have been with TBL for so long they have narrated hundreds of accessible Christian audio books that are now in CELA's collection.
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Crystal's severe vision loss, at the young age of 29, forced her to explore accessible reading options. After several frustrating attempts to read DAISY books off her tablet, TBL and CNIB support staff were able to help Crystal start reading TBL audio books off a DAISY player in just ONE DAY!
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Straight from the author...
Christian author, Tim Huff, has recorded his own seminal work about his multi-decade ministry to homeless Canadians. The audio version of Bent Hope is set to release for public purchase through our partnership with Canadian Christian publisher, Castle Quay Books this summer! Stay tuned....