The Universal Page

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
Andrew Leland has always loved to read. As a fifth grader, he was the kid who sat on a utility box during recess reading The Hobbit while everyone else played kickball. In middle school, he learned the trade names of the book imprints that published the druggie, contemporary fiction that he was starting to get into. And in 2003, he dropped out of college and moved to San Francisco to work with his favorite publisher, McSweeney’s.

Andrew Leland:
It was my dream job. And working there exacerbated my already intense fetish for print.

Roman Mars:
That’s Andrew.

Andrew Leland:
I got to live out my fantasy of being an ink stained wretch. Even if that meant logging 12 hour days at an inkless computer. I edited essays and interviews, laid out articles, and took a weird amount of pleasure in typographical minutiae, like italicizing commas and rewriting headlines so they fit the frame just so. At McSweeney’s, books and magazines were never just containers for words, they were works of art unto themselves. And I was trained to take as much care with the look and feel of the print as I did with the expression of the ideas in the text.

Roman Mars:
But as much as Andrew loved print, he still loves it, in fact, he also has a condition that will eventually change his relationship to it pretty radically.

Andrew Leland:
I’m going blind really, really slowly. Right now it’s like I’ve got a foot in both worlds, blind and sighted. I have a degenerative retinal disease that’s given me severe tunnel vision, so basically no peripheral vision. It’s like I’m peering at the world through a toilet paper tube. One that gets a little narrower every few months.

Digital Program:
10!.

Andrew Leland:
(Clears throat) All right. I’m going to try to read this. And then see if I got it right. Can we…

Andrew Leland:
My retinal specialist told me that I probably don’t need to worry about losing the ability to read for another five years or so. But I’ve already started using a special digital program to learn Braille, which is not easy.

Andrew Leland:
Be cockle. What?

Andrew Leland:
I want to get a jump start before I actually need it.

Andrew Leland:
Recockly. What? Oh, recycle.

Digital Program:
Can we recycle a metal can?

Andrew Leland:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). I know I’ll still be able to experience books for the rest of my life. I’m lucky to be going blind in the digital age, and the golden age of audio. There’s an abundance of well-produced audio books and technology that can read aloud almost anything that appears on a screen.

Andrew Leland:
Puh… Puzzles. My niece can ride a unicycle. I’ll do puzzles.

Digital Program:
My niece can ride a unicycle or do puzzles.

Andrew Leland:
The (bleep) does that mean? My niece can do no such thing.

Andrew Leland:
But despite all that, there’s still some mellow tragedy in the idea that in a few years, I’ll probably no longer be able to read print. After a life spent loving books, there’s now a real urgency for me, and the question of how blind people experience literature. I find myself deeply curious about what graphic design might mean to someone who can’t see. And so I started looking into the history of reading technologies for the blind.

Roman Mars:
Traditionally, books are visual objects. And for centuries now, blind and sighted designers have been arguing over the most effective way to translate the visual ink print book into an accessible form for people without sight. For as long as blind people have been reading, there’s been just tension between systems that try to stay close to the original form of a book, and systems that dramatically depart from our ideas of what a book can be.

Andrew Leland:
Sighted designers have made incredible breakthroughs to create nonvisual forms of reading for blind people. But as one blind critic pointed out, sighted designers have a bad habit of, quote, talking to the fingers in the language of the eyes.

Roman Mars:
So the history of blind reading is really the history of finding a new language for the fingers and for the ears. One that captures the essential elements of the ink print book, but in a new language that’s unbound from the visual.

Andrew Leland:
And that history centers around two main shapes. Lines and dots.

Roman Mars:
Our story starts in 18th century Europe, before Braille was invented, before blind people were even taught to read at all.

Mike Hudson:
First off, no one thinks that it’s possible for blind kids to learn.

Roman Mars:
That’s Mike Hudson, the Museum Director at the American Printing House for the Blind in Louisville, Kentucky.

Mike Hudson:
And if they could, no one knows how to do it.

Andrew Leland:
Without access to education, blind people were overwhelmingly poor, and their employment prospects were dim. If their families had enough money and time to support them, they usually lived at home, like adult children sitting idly around the house. Many others were forced to beg on the street. There were a handful of institutions in Europe to support the poorest cases, but they pitied the blind and hid them away from public view.

Roman Mars:
But then this guy named Valentin Haüy comes along. Haüy was born into a family of weavers in France, and he was a skilled linguist. He was first inspired to help the blind in 1771, when he saw a group of blind people being mocked during a street festival in Paris. They had been given dunce caps and giant fake glasses, and they were made to play musical instruments and pretend to read books.

Andrew Leland:
So Haüy founded the first known school for the blind. It was called The Royal Institute in Paris. But even as he’s getting the school going, Haüy kept a side gig.

Mike Hudson:
And Haüy’s side gig is as a translator for the King of France. And so every now again, he’ll get these fancy, embossed invitations to various events.

Andrew Leland:
And one day, one of Haüy’s students, a kid named Francois Lesueur, touched one of them.

Mike Hudson:
And Francois Lesueur notices that he can feel something on these invitations. And that gives Haüy the idea to develop this idea of embossed printing in raised letters.

Roman Mars:
So in 1786, Haüy makes the first machine embossed book for the blind. A treatise on blind education. It’s written in print, the kind that sighted readers would recognize. But the text is all raised so that blind students can feel the shape of the letters.

Andrew Leland:
And it’s a radical move. Not just the first book for blind readers in history, but basically the beginning of the idea that blind people can be educated. But there are a few problems.

Mike Hudson:
Well, first off, no one can afford to buy these books. Okay?

Roman Mars:
That’s because the books are massive and prohibitively expensive. But they’re also just really hard to read. They’re filled with ornate 18th century letter forms, with their curly cues and flourishes, which are confusing to the fingertips.

Andrew Leland:
It’s not until many years later, near the end of Haüy’s life in 1821 that a very different blind reading system begins to develop. One that uses dots instead of lines. It starts when a captain from Napoleon’s army visits the school to share a system that he developed for French soldiers. The captain describes how the system allowed his men to silently communicate with each other on battlefields at night. This is a clip from a very lively educational movie about this history.

Captain:
Then I came up with the brilliant idea of making signs, thank you, that my men could read in the dark merely by touch! I called it “nocturnal writing”.

Roman Mars:
The director of the school at the time let a group of students experiment with the embossed pages that the captain had left behind. And in that group was a 12-year-old blind kid named Louis Braille. Over the next few years, he began to adapt that military code for blind people as an alternative to raised print.

Mr. Braille:
Louis, you’ve been working on that for days! Your mother’s worried. Can’t you take a break?

Louis Braille:
No, I’m so close. I’ve got it worked out so all the letters of the alphabet are represented by raised dots in different combinations.

Roman Mars:
Louis Braille simplified the military code and maximized its efficiency. He substituted the 12 dot system developed by the captain into a six dot system, which allow blind people to read faster by recognizing a letter with a touch of a single finger.

Andrew Leland:
And while this code was inscrutable to sighted people, it was the system that blind people needed, designed by a blind person who understood intimately the needs of those reading by touch. Another advocate for the blind would say of Braille, it bears the stamp of genius, like the Roman alphabet itself.

Roman Mars:
But despite its effectiveness, Braille didn’t catch on right away. It wouldn’t become the dominant system in France for another 30 years. And it’d be nearly a century before it became standard for blind readers in the U.S.

Andrew Leland:
Because it was effectively suppressed by a well-intentioned, world famous visionary of blind education.

Andrew Leland:
Around the same time that Braille was quietly developing his new reading system, an American named Samuel Gridley Howe came to visit the Royal Institute in France. He as doing research in anticipation of opening the first school for the blind in the U.S.

Roman Mars:
And I wish I could tell you that while in France, Howe discovered the wonders of Braille. But that’s not how it went down. Instead, he saw the raised letter books, and he was intrigued. But in true American fashion, he found all their fancy flourishes impractical and typical of European excess. So he decided to make his own system that improved on the European’s work.

Kim Charlson:
And he came back, and he modified it a bit.

Roman Mars:
That’s Kim Charlson, the director of the library at the Perkins School, which Howe established in Massachusetts in 1829.

Kim Charlson:
Because they were using a more gothic-style font that he felt was a little too ornamental and more difficult to read by touch.

Andrew Leland:
So if one Haüy’s French books looks like a sort of ancient tome in a horror movie, whose letters rise up in fleshy protuberances, then Howe’s system is similar, but it looks more runic, Tolkien-y, elvish. Howe sharpened his letter’s curves into points to make them more distinct under the fingertips. The letter O, for example, is shaped like a diamond. Howe calls his new system Boston Line Type.

Kim Charlson:
Boston Line Type is really the beginning of literacy as we know it was a movement for people who are blind in the United States.

Roman Mars:
And like the older French system, Boston Line Type was designed to be read both by blind and sighted people. If you’re able to see and look at one of these books, the letters are totally, easily legible.

Kim Charlson:
Boston Line Type allows blind people and sighted people to sit down together and to read. There’s no barrier between them.

Roman Mars:
And this idea was really important to Howe. He didn’t want blind people to use a system, like Braille, that was separate from what sighted people use. He thought it would isolate blind people, and prevent them from integrating into the wider world. Long before the concept of universal design had been articulated, it was informing Howe’s thinking about how to design for people with disabilities.

Mike Hudson:
And also you can imagine the argument. Well, we want our kids that are blind, visually impaired to use the same system that our sighted kids use. Right? That sounds good, right? But it turns out that raised letters are just not as good as Braille. So it’s harder. It just is harder. That’s not intuitive to people who are sighted, but those letter forms are just not unique enough from each other. Sighted people look at Braille, and they go, oh, it all looks the same. But under the finger, those raised dots underneath your finger are just more tangible. Okay, they just are.

Andrew Leland:
And not only that, you can write in Braille. Unlike raised print, it doesn’t require a big, heavy metal printing press. All you need is a small simple tool, called a slate and stylus, that fits in your pocket.

Roman Mars:
By the 1860s, some schools of the blind in the U.S. had begun experimenting with Braille. And while many faculty members still resisted it as an arbitrary, impenetrable system, the blind students who were exposed to Braille argued passionately for its superiority to raised letters. At the Missouri School for the Blind, students passed each other notes and reportedly even love letters in Braille, since they knew their teachers wouldn’t be able to read them if they got caught.

Andrew Leland:
But Howe had invested a massive amount of time and resources into developing, distributing, and promoting Boston Line Type. And he’d become a hugely influential celebrity in the field of blind education. He was a master fundraiser, and key to that fundraising apparatus was the spectacle of a deaf blind girl named Laura Bridgman, who Howe taught to read using Boston Line Type.

Roman Mars:
Bridgman was the first deaf blind person in history to get an education, more than a full generation before Helen Keller did. This achievement made Laura Bridgman and Howe international stars, which Howe leveraged to make Boston Line Type one of the dominant print mediums for the blind across the U.S.

Andrew Leland:
Like Howe, many of the directors and faculty at schools for the blind were sighted. And many of them believed that they knew which system was best.

Catherine Kudlick:
Well, it’s easy for me reading a print letter so it’s got to be easy for them with their fingers, you know? I think it’s a failure of imagination or a failure of empathy, or a failure of experience.

Roman Mars:
Catherine Kudlick directs the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability at San Francisco State, where she’s also a history professor. And she doesn’t really even buy Howe’s argument that Boston Line Type was universal.

Catherine Kudlick:
He might have thought it was universal, but it’s universal in that way that the colonizer thinks things are universal. It’s like, you know, these poor native people need educating, and we’ll try to bring them up to my level and make them like me. They didn’t get the blind people to be the experts.

Andrew Leland:
That’s a crucial part, right? I mean that’s like a disability rights refrain. Its nothing…

Catherine Kudlick:
Nothing about us without us. Yeah. In fact, the new way that people are starting to say it is nothing without us. Period.

Andrew Leland:
I think Howe probably made a good faith effort to create a universal system, one that predicted universal design. One that he hoped would erase the line dividing the blind from the sighted. But paradoxically, in committing so strongly to the universal page of Boston Line Type, Howe helped delay the adoption of a much better system by close to 100 years in the U.S. A system where the blind person, Louis Braille, was the expert.

Roman Mars:
By the early 20th century, Howe had died. There were growing numbers of organizations dedicated to serving the blind. And more and more of them were being led by blind people. In 1921, leaders from the most influential of these groups gathered in rural Iowa to form the American Foundation of the Blind. The AFB quickly became the most powerful blindness organization in the U.S. and one of their first priorities was to make Braille the dominant system.

Andrew Leland:
But, Americans being Americans, the same thing happened that had happened with raised letters. We decided that we could design things better than those pretentious Europeans could, so a whole cottage industry arose with all sorts of competing systems, Braille knockoffs.

Mike Hudson:
So now we’re heading into what we call the War of the Dots. Have you heard of that?

Roman Mars:
We could spend an entire episode on the War of the Dots with Mike Hudson as our trusty narrator. But in a nutshell, before Braille truly won out in the U.S., there was another 50 years of competing tactile systems.

Andrew Leland:
This period drove many blind readers bananas, because every library for the blind was filled with books printed in these multiple, competing systems. New York Point, Moon Type, American Modified Braille.

Mike Hudson:
There are others by the way. We’re not going to go into them. But at one point the head of the Perkins School says, you know, if anybody invents another code for the blind, we want to shoot them on the spot. (laughs)

Roman Mars:
The decisive battle in the War of the Dots finally came in 1909. Cities like New York were rapidly growing, and for the first time they had enough blind children to start building day schools for the blind.

Mike Hudson:
And so they have a nice, big, today, knock down, drag out meeting of the New York Board of Education to decide which code they’re going to use in the New York City schools. So they bring in all the heavy hitters. Okay? I mean, everybody’s who anybody and blind testifies before this body. And at the end, they take a big vote, and they vote for Braille. Okay? It’s the beginning of the end for the competing codes.

Roman Mars:
By 1917, the rest of the country follows New York’s lead, and the newly standardized English Braille becomes the main way blind children are taught to read in the U.S. and with their increasing self-determination and literacy, blind people are more able to integrate into society than ever before. Blind children are starting to be mainstreamed into public schools, and for the first time, some blind people are getting office jobs using tech like Braille typewriters so they can work alongside sighted people as equals. It was Howe had hoped Boston Line Type would help them do.

Andrew Leland:
But for all Braille’s advantages over raised print, it didn’t work for all blind people. Like the thousands of soldiers who were coming back from war with eye injuries who hadn’t learned Braille as kids. And as you probably noticed listening to me struggle to read that stupid sentence about my niece doing puzzles.

Andrew Leland:
Puh… puzzles? My niece can ride a unicycle or do the puzzles?

Andrew Leland:
Learning Braille as an adult is really hard.

Digital Program:
My niece can ride a unicycle or do puzzles.

Roman Mars:
But as sound recording became easier and more affordable, those people who’d become blind later in life had new options. Options that would transform our ideas of what a book can be. Translating ink print books into sound might seem more straightforward than building a tactile reading system. After all, books were born out of a few thousand years of people telling each other stories. And we all learned to read by having books read to us. But early efforts to make recordings of books for blind readers brought with them a new set of design challenges.

Andrew Leland:
The American Foundation for the Blind partnered with the Carnegie Corporation to publish experimental books on phonographic records. They called them “Talking Books”. They hired narrators and pressed the recordings onto long playing records, 25 minutes a side. These books were circulated by blind people about a decade before LPs became available to the wider public. The first audio books, and the first LPs, were made for blind readers.

Roman Mars:
But these talking books raised big questions. What should a book sound like? How do you translate the elements of a codex, which is a fancy word for the thing that we usually call a book, with paper pages, ink and binding. How do you translate one of those things into sound?

Mara Mills:
The definition of the book basically imploded right after these talking books started to be developed because all sorts of producers started to come up with new ideas for things that they would call talking books, that certainly had nothing to do with the codex form.

Roman Mars:
That’s Mara Mills. She’s a professor at NYU who works at the intersection of media and disability studies. And I promise, she’s the last academic I’m going to introduce you to.

Talking Book:
Let’s leave our chap for a minute and listen to his ringing cathedral-like song. (bird singing)

Mara Mills:
The Cornell ornithology lab, for instance, decided that they wanted to take some of their bird song recordings and make a talking book for blind people out of them.

Talking Book:
Their songs are among the finest of American birds, and they rival at perhaps the…

Mara Mills:
When Snow White came out as an early animated talking movie, the AFB decided they wanted to make a talking book version of a talking movie.

Disney Book:
Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Recorded solely for the use of the blind…

Mara Mills:
There was no book origin. They called it a book, and they circulated it as a talking book, but it was an audio description of the images in an animated film with some of the sound files and dialogue from that film.

Disney Book:
The huntsman crept closer and closer. When he was right behind Snow White, he drew his big knife. Then Snow White noticed a shadow on the ground.

Mara Mills:
Very quickly, all sorts of things began to be called books, that had very marginal relationship to book form.

Roman Mars:
And as talking books became more elaborate and theatrical, more filled with sound effects and music, some blind people grew frustrated.

Andrew Leland:
More and more blind readers wound up breaking their record players, trying to speed up the voices of the narrators. They weren’t listening for sonic aesthetic pleasure. They wanted the damn information, and the fancy productions moved too slowly for how fast they wanted to read.

Roman Mars:
Which is the same impulse that makes people listen to podcasts at double speed.

Andrew Leland:
As with raised letter books, the ornamental flourishes of music and sound effects got in the way of blind people’s desire for speed. And so talking books began to sound different.

Alexander Scourby:
The Holy Bible, the King James version. Read by Alexander Scourby.

Andrew Leland:
No nonsense narrators, like Alexander Scourby, became more popular in the 1940s and 50s. And their voices became almost like fonts. Standardized, legible, and most importantly, conveying information without getting in the way. More like the narrators of contemporary audio books.

Alexander Scourby:
In the beginning, God created the Heaven and the Earth. And the Earth was without form and void. Darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light!” And there was light.

Andrew Leland:
The book historian Matthew Rubery told me that if you bring up the name Alexander Scourby with a blind person of a certain age, their eyes will fill with tears because of the associations they have with his voice. They grew up listening to him, reading him. So perhaps this is my consolation as I become a blind reader. I can just trade a visual type face for a verbal one.

Alexander Scourby:
Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.

Andrew Leland:
In some ways, my fears about losing my visual relationship to books resembles the anxieties that sighted people have about the demise of print in the digital age. As more and more people read on screens, there’s an old guard who bemoans these new forms of reading as inferior. These critics believe that the trusty old technology of the book will always be the superior vehicle for ideas.

Roman Mars:
You can hear this conservatism and condescension not only in those people who malign the eBook, but also in the voices of people who say that you haven’t really read a book if you’ve listened to it. They contend that real reading only happens with the eyes.

Andrew Leland:
But the history of blindness and reading shows that the way we read has always been in flux. The media scholars and book historians I talked to all told me the same thing. Reading doesn’t happen in the eyes or the ears or the fingers. It happens in the brain. And this is a nice thing to hear if you’re going blind. It makes me feel like, forget my stupid eyes, I’ll still have my brain. That’s where all the good stuff happens anyway. But this idea doesn’t really soften or mask the fact that blindness is inescapably a loss. No amount of historical research or conceptual reframing can hide the simple equation at work here.

Andrew Leland:
I love books, ink print books, with marginalia and type faces and dingbats. And going blind will take that away from me. But I can’t let that be my only conclusion. That blindness equals loss, full stop. Mara Mills told me about someone she met whose story could offer me an example of a different way to approach my life as a blind reader. His name is Harvey Lauer. He’s a blind guy who worked at the VA, testing all kinds of technology for the visually impaired.

Harvey Lauer:
When you turn on the machine, you hear all the sounds in the earphone.

Andrew Leland:
This is Harvey using an optophone, a kind of scanner that would look at text and turn it into a series of tones, representing the shapes of the letters. It’s another spin on universal design for blind readers. With an optophone, you wouldn’t need to create special books for the blind at all. With training, a blind person could read an ink print book using one of these devices. The optophone was first developed in 1912. But this recording is from 1971.

Harvey Lauer:
Reading sounds like this. First off, find the line. (series of tones) And then we’ll read.

Andrew Leland:
Incredibly, some blind people actually learned how to read this way. After a lot of practice, they could hear these sounds and decode the words they represented, reading entire novels using what came to be called musical print.

Harvey Lauer:
It said the necessary functions of the… (series of tones)

Andrew Leland:
Using the devices he tested for the VA, Harvey could read by vibration, through musical print, plus Braille and super sped up talking books. He reads using more of his body, more of his senses, then perhaps anyone else on the planet. His colleagues called him a cyborg. He walked around with these devices dangling around his neck wherever he went, emitting vibrations and synthetic musical tones.

Harvey Lauer:
I had to turn up the threshold after empirical (series of tones)….

Andrew Leland:
Mara told me that this sometimes led to funny incidents of confusion. Like the time Harvey walked into a 7-Eleven and heard all these electronic tones coming out of the various machines in the store. He tried decoding them, because it seemed to him like they should be alphabetic. And then he realized, nope, they’re just electronic tones. It’s just the cash register. Harvey’s mistake in the 7-Eleven suggests to me a way that my future as a blind reader might actually signal something other than a total loss. Blindness could add something to my life, even as it takes something else away. Learning to read in new ways through new senses could increase my appreciation for the world around me.

Andrew Leland:
Harvey told Mara that he finds the electronic tones and chords of the optophone beautiful. He said they remind him of Debussy’s music, which gives me hope that whichever way I end up reading, through sped up synthetic speech or Braille, or maybe some high tech, post optophonic cyborg system that’s yet to be invented, that I’ll find the beautiful in that kind of reading too.

Credits

Production

This episode was produced by Andrew Leland, who also produces KCRW’s The Organist podcast. Leland spoke with Kim Charlson, Executive Director of the Perkins Library; Mara Mills, Associate Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at NYU; Mike Hudson, Museum Director at the American Printing House for the Blind; and Catherine Kudlick, Director of the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability at San Francisco State University (where she’s also a history professor). This episode was edited by Delaney Hall

Special thanks also to Jen Hale, the archivist at Perkins; Jennifer Arnott, Research Librarian in the Samuel P. Hayes Research Library; Matthew Rubery, Professor of modern literature at Queen Mary University of London; Mara Mills’s NSF Award #1354297 for the Talking Book and Visotoner recordings (with additional thanks to the American Foundation for the Blind, Harvey Lauer, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology); Waleed Meleis, from Northeastern’s College of Engineering and the Enabling Engineering student group that made the 3D scans of Boston Line Type; Rick Ely, teacher of the visually impaired in Northampton, Mass.; and Craig Eley, independent radio producer, who pointed out the legibility of optophone type when viewed in a spectrograph.

Comments (4)

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  1. Ruhama Veltfort

    I have had macular degeneration for about 20 yrs (early onset). I began reading when I was 4 and have always had a great love of books. You did not mention the grief over loss of books. I still have books on my shelves although I have not been able to read them for many years, and have jettisoned most of my once large library. I did not learn braille – too old, as you point out. I rely on audio books have have things to say about the differences (many) between reading and listening. Listening is much more emotional, for one thing. Like your interviewee, I was once a writer and editor. I don’t know how to reach you. Please let me know if you would care to correspond.

  2. annie

    The optophone sounds like a cross between Mr. Rogers’s trolley music and a dial-up modem.

  3. SteveD

    I regret to say that sometimes your design sensibility and fascination get in the way of just plain information. I for one was hoping to hear the answers to some really nagging questions I had about the optophone such as “Is the scanning device used to create packaged optophone books, which are released as such?” or “can blind readers scan printed books for themselves? And if so, how do blind readers do that? ” or “how do you bookmark what your reading?”
    And, of course hearing this discordant and in comprehensible device made me think of another obscure noise making device, the Optigan, about which you could likely devote an entire show, with the added benefit of it being less atonal.

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