I Marveled at the Potential of DAISY
"As a kid in the 1970s I often used to imagine being able to walk up to a machine and just get it to give me information which my friends and family members could get from the newspaper, or from a bookshop, or from a brochure. I still have that desire today – although I don't have to imagine it any more."
Much has changed in terms of information access over the past couple of decades, and people such as Neil, driven by their desire to read and to have access to the same written materials as everyone else, have played an incredible role in this change.
My name is Neil Jarvis, and I'm in charge of the Access & Innovation portfolio at the Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind (RNZFB). Our talking book and braille library is one of the services I'm responsible for, along with accessible format production and innovation. Access to information is at the core of my team's work.
I am also a life-long user of accessible information. I was born blind and started to learn braille at the age of four. I use braille on a daily basis, and cannot imagine life without it. The advent of electronic information has given us more opportunities to use braille than ever, so don't let anyone ever tell you that braille is on its way out. How we produce and read it is changing: the need for it is not.
I attended mainstream school from the age of 12, and used a combination of braille, old-fashioned tape recorders and a good old trusty manual typewriter to do my work. This state of affairs continued into my university education.
In those days, all I ever wanted to do was to read. It wasn't until I saw what possibilities OCR (optical character recognition) and scanning devices had to offer that I got seriously interested in the potential of computer technology. Little did I realize that the rest of my life would be shaped by that technology in ways I could not have imagined.
Access – My Ideal Becoming Reality
I became infatuated with online services long before the word "Internet" was used widely. I discovered that bulletin boards and services such as CompuServe would give me access not only to other people like myself but also to resources and information I'd previously only envisaged in my ideal world scenario.
Even today, two decades or more on from that time, I marvel at the information I'm able to access thanks to what we now call the Internet. As a kid in the 1970s I often used to imagine being able to walk up to a machine and just get it to give me information which my friends and family members could get from the newspaper, or from a bookshop, or from a brochure. I still have that desire today: although I don't have to imagine it any more.
What we still have to do though is to make it standard practice that people with a print disability can access whatever they want to in the way that works best for them. I still think, for instance, that the junk mail we all get in our letter boxes is something which I want the choice to read or throw away.
…There was no stopping me
As I've mentioned, my initial interest in computing came not from a desire to write or understand code, but from a simple desire to access information. Once I realized that I could use a scanner and OCR package to take an ordinary paper document, or even a book, and convert it into a form which I could read, I was hooked. Like many other people reading this, I would happily spend hours scanning a book into my PC so that I could read it. However once I'd acquired a computer there was no stopping me! I wanted to know what made it tick, how I could tweak the software to make it behave even better for me than its default configuration did. Ultimately, I loved trouble-shooting problems which were thrown up by the computer. Slowly but surely, all of these facets of my computer interests started to come together.
In 1991, I set up a small transcription service for a local authority in the UK. This took mainly Council information which up until then had been available in hard copy print only, and we converted it to audio cassette, braille or large print. At the same time, I was unofficially taking on the role of supporting the IT (information technology) needs of blind and partially sighted staff who worked for the Authority.
I spent the next decade and a half in a variety of roles in the adaptive technology industry, but always under-pinning my work and leisure activities was a drive to support whatever efforts were being made to increase access to information for those who could not read standard print. I became aware of the work of the DAISY Consortium long before I was involved in DAISY myself, and marveled at the potential that this system had for people wanting to access and navigate books, newspapers and similar content.
In 2004, I emigrated from the UK and went to live and work in New Zealand. I was employed by the Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind and worked in what was then the Adaptive Technology team. In 2008, I joined the Executive Team of the RNZFB and was given responsibility for those parts of the organization which dealt with access to information for people with a print disability. It really felt like the whole of my life had been leading up to this role.
The work to convert RNZFB's analogue cassette library system to a digital DAISY-based digital format had begun prior to my time. However when I came into my current role I was tasked with putting together an end-to-end project which would prepare the way for the new service and implementing it. My predecessor had ensured that all our talking books were recorded in the DAISY format for some years before, so we had been given a good start. My job was to finalise the requirements for our talking book player and oversee the changes to our infrastructure and systems, so that we ended up with a truly digital library service.
RNZFB Moves Forward
Just over a year after we started the project, our first batch of digital talking book players arrived, and our first CD Burn-On-Demand equipment was installed. Two years after that, we completed the transition and our analogue service was closed down after many decades of fabulous work.
We are now embarking on Phase 2 of our project, which will see us expand our service to encompass on-line capability.
In 2012 I was honoured to become President of the Round Table on Information Access for People with Print Disabilities. Round Table is made up of organisations in the public, not-for-profit and private sectors in Australia and New Zealand dedicated to promoting access to information and to sharing examples of good practice with each other and with the outside world. In 2010, recognizing the importance and value of DAISY, Round Table established a DAISY Special Interest Group, and I am keen to see this become more and more active in the years to come.
DAISY is Not Standing Still
In 2008 I joined the Board of the DAISY Consortium and have been thoroughly impressed by the skill and commitment of this organization. DAISY is not standing still – anyone who read's the DAISY Planet newsletter will know that, and it's exciting for me to be part of yet another adventure in improving access to information.
For me it all goes back to being a child who had an unquenchable thirst for reading and for finding things out, but who was constantly frustrated by the lack of accessible material. Lack of access is still a problem for many people, but we are seeing real solutions being put into practice. I often say that there has never been a better time to be blind. Technologies like DAISY demonstrate that every day. Our task is to open up the world of information to everyone, and DAISY is helping us to do that.