Bernhard Heinser

There were six founding members of the DAISY Consortium. One of those six was the Swiss Library for the Blind and Visually Impaired (SBS), and Bernhard Heinser was the managing director of SBS in 1996 when the Consortium was established. Bernhard was a member of the DAISY Board of Directors and served as Treasurer for more than one term. His career change from the commercial publishing industry to accessible content publishing and provision, is in itself an interesting transition. The commitment which he has to information access for all is made clear in his story. At present Bernhard is the Chief Financial Officer for the DAISY Consortium. He and his family reside in Switzerland.

Bernhard Heinser, portrait photograph, 2011

My professional life is divided into two parts. Part 1 – twenty-five years dedicated to literature and literary criticism, first in the context of my studies on a theoretical level, then as an editor in publishing houses, working in collaboration with authors. My life was dedicated to complex questions such as: What is a "good" book? What is a "failed" book? On what elements is a literary judgment based? Do these elements lie in the book or in the reader, or in both? Is the question "What did the author mean?" (a question appreciated very much by teachers) appropriate?

This was followed by Part 2 – almost twenty years dedicated to the problems around access to information for persons with disabilities. This may seem a rather drastic career change but there is an underlying, coherent continuum.

It began many years before I studied literature. I first experienced the pleasure of reading in my early childhood. Hours and hours, late in the evening and into the night, when my parents were sure I slept, I lived under the blanket in the light of an electric torch with the books' heroes and their adventures. I learned about the saloons in the Wild West, about London at the time of Oliver Twist, and about Peter Pan's strange wish of never wanting to grow up. I admired Pippi Longstocking's bracing insolence and thought of Sweden as Paradise on Earth. I didn't reflect on the reading process, I read for pleasure, but forty-five years later I know that reading greatly enriched me and expanded my perception of the world.

When studying literature or, more specifically literary criticism, pleasure reading is complemented by the effort to reflect on the reading process and to find out why a specific work is delighting (or displeasing) a person. When you find an answer to this question, you can communicate the reading experience to others. Reflecting on the reading process leads to the understanding that there is something beyond or under the text itself that enhances and contributes to the meaning of a work. The relationship between the surface or interface (the book, the text) and the underlying layer is the real object of studies in literature.

From Literary Criticism to Advocacy

SBS logo In 1995 when I became managing director of the Swiss Library for the Blind and Visually Impaired (SBS) (now a member of the Swiss DAISY Consortium), I had no understanding of information accessibility. All I knew was that there were Braille and Talking Books that enabled blind and visually impaired persons to read. Surprisingly it took me very little time to understand the key challenges and issues around information access.

At first I was shocked by the small number of available accessible works and by the fact that works in foreign languages were not well represented in the library collection. I learned about the extremely complicated and time consuming processes required to transform publications into accessible formats. I learned about the very limited cross-border exchange of accessible formats due to copyright restrictions and complicate exchange processes resulting from differences in formats (two track, four track, six track cassettes).

I used to ceaselessly read texts in various languages, leisure reading, scientific texts, popular non-fiction, newspapers, and consult dictionaries and encyclopaedias. I was therefore well aware of the importance of being able to orientate oneself in a book, and I sadly realized how inconvenient and slow it was to search and retrieve specific places or information in cassettes talking books. I imagined how difficult it would be for a student who was blind or visually impaired to write a simple scientific document with references, footnotes, and quotations. I clearly understood the resulting exclusion from reading, education, social, cultural, and political participation and integration. I understood it as a profound injustice and wanted to improve the situation.

Bernhard Heinser and Elke Dittmer, photograph taken in the late 1990s At that time, 1995/1996, the digital technology revolution had begun; globalization driven by technological developments was about to become a reality. It was evident to me that digital technologies would offer unprecedented opportunities for overcoming this exclusion. When I heard about the Swedish DAISY initiative and the intention to establish an international Consortium, I didn't hesitate a second before deciding that the Swiss Library for the Blind and Visually Impaired would be a part of this effort. I understood the opportunities offered by digital technologies. I also understood that real progress would only be possible through a global approach – meaning standardization and interoperability between a variety of systems, and in time, including collaborative efforts between the industrialized world and the developing world. And, it is not a big leap from this point to the approval of the "open source" and "universal design" concepts which the DAISY Consortium adopted several years after it was established.

When the DAISY Consortium was formed and for a number of years following, the acronym "DAISY" stood for "Digital Audio-based Information System". The focus was on a digital replacement for cassette talking books. Near the end of the 20th century, the meaning of the "A" in DAISY was changed from "Audio-based" to "Accessible", becoming the "Digital Accessible Information System". This is a significant change. It meant that the DAISY Standard was not limited to one "perception channel" (audio). It includes TEXT as the underlying content of a document even if the DAISY book is distributed as audio with structure only. Later on IMAGE and VIDEO* were considered and supported by the DAISY Standard (*video is being included in the next revision). Today we understand that truly accessible information is a navigable multimedia publication that synchronizes different "perception channels" and that allows the end user to read and fully understand what he or she reads.

In the late 1990's when I heard about XML and its separation of the appearance or representation of a document from its underlying structure, I wanted to learn more about it. Some colleagues from SBS and I attended an XML workshop. I immediately understood the potential impact of XML for two reasons. I knew about two-layer concepts through my literature studies and I knew about the importance of structure in a document for efficient and effective reading.

Bernhard Heinser speaking at TelecomWorld 2009 in Geneva As an experienced text reader, I didn't need to be convinced that TEXT must be included. I believe that reading by ear (audio) and reading tactually (Braille) offer two qualitatively different reading experiences. TEXT as the content of the book must therefore be included. Digital technologies have the potential to satisfy both the audio reader and the Braille reader. "Digital" implies "machine-readable", however Braille notation is different for different languages, and in some cases there are also two modes (integral and abridged); there are also special cases known as exceptions from "rules". In my opinion, it is therefore crucial that Braille authorities begin to simplify Braille notation rules to make them "machine-readable". I believe that the Braille community should endeavour to develop electronic Braille that can be efficiently generated and used with refreshable Braille display tools. This is necessary if braille and braille competence are to survive over the coming decades. Expensive and time-consuming braille is not compatible with the expectations of today's consumers.

Technology is only an instrument, and in itself is not at the heart of the issue. Looking back, I see some key elements regarding access to information:

  1. a strong conviction that exclusion from access to information is a violation of human rights
  2. the conviction that digital technology can help to overcome that violation
  3. the willingness of the driving bodies and individuals to fully understand the underlying implications of the applied technologies
  4. the conviction that all of our efforts should go into supporting global, collaborative efforts rather than working in isolation

For several months I have been involved with the TIGAR pilot project – Trusted Intermediary Global Accessible Resources – which is the merger of the (DAISY/IFLA LPD) Global Accessible Library project and the WIPO Trusted Intermediary project. The TIGAR project long-term objective is to significantly increase the number of accessible versions of published works available worldwide to people who have a print disability, and ultimately to have those works available to those users by download at anytime and from anywhere. Initially, the project will involve cross-border exchange of published works between 'trusted intermediary' organizations through licensing arrangements with rightsholders participating in the TIGAR project. It's an ambitious project, yes, but it's time to make this happen, to focus on a truly global approach to accessible information.