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Audio Books and the story of our everyday accessibility

Like most people walking or driving to work, I connect my phone to my car or headphones and listen to a good audiobook, but did you ever stop to think how this form of entertainment or knowledge gain is yet another example of how accessibility and the disabled community have nourished our everyday lives

If you have ever worked with me, or even just read my articles or social posts, you will find that I am passionate about user experience, particularly regarding accessibility. There are so many reasons your website experience should be tailored for all users, and not just for the search engines or to make your company processes easier but I have written posts about this before, and will continue to do so in the future.

In this post though, I am not going to be talking about websites and the positive gains of making them accessible, I want to talk about one of the first examples of accessibility in real life... The Audiobook...

Books are great aren't they, they teach you things, they entertain you, they make you laugh or cry and there's little better than to settle down to a book with a hot drink or our favourite tipple during your well-earned downtime. For most of us, this was the only way to enjoy a book until around 1995 when a strange company launched called "Audible". This company offered a service which allowed you to actually "listen" to someone reading a book through your computer or through headphones on your mobile phone.

This was a revelation for lots of people, you could now enjoy a book while working, eating, gardening, and even driving... Why has nobody thought of this before?!?

Spoiler alert: Of course they had

Looking back into history, the book industry was thriving after world war I, people were thirsty for knowledge or needed that heroic or romantic story to enhance their life fantasies, and the book publishers were eager to give it to them.

It's fair to say that as a result of the war a few years previously, there was a greater than the average number of people with disabilities such as blindness, low vision or other issues which means they couldn't hold a book for long enough periods. Was there any way that the publishers could help these people thus adding to their customer base? (a relatively new business term, but you know what I mean)

The phonograph used to listen to a bookThis wasn't a new problem, phonographs were employed to play the spoken word since the 1870s but were very short and available mainly to the rich.

Of course, by the 30s the record player existed and was starting to make its way into more homes and so publishers looked to this medium to help out people who can't read books in the normal manner, you could only fit around 20 minutes of speech on a record but this was enough for short stories and poems, and imagine the possibilities that this opened up for a blind person... This content was now accessible, albeit in a limited way but it was revolutionary for someone who wanted to be in the world of written content! 

This fantastic technology was termed the "talking book" and stayed pretty much in the same format until the 60s when tapes were used. By the time the compact disc was invented in the '80s, nearly every classic or best-selling book had been recorded and available to disabled people to finally enjoy the content, and it was available in an easy-to-use format, one that could even be portable to enjoy anywhere, regardless of what they were doing at the time.

This was a revelation, not just for people who had a disability, but lots of able-bodied people were starting to realise the convenience of this, imagine using your CD Walkman for the spoken word as well as music, able to take in a book while travelling, working or just to sit back in your chair, close your eyes and be in another world!

Something that started as a major niche to help the disabled is starting to be used in everyday life by anyone.

Audible was born

Screenshot of the Audible WebsiteOf course, we all know where it went from there, "Audible" was created in the 90s and the key is, they already had a library of thousands of books previously made for the disabled and in the most convenient digital format, capable of being played on a laptop and later from the phone you had in your pocket! Perfect from an accessibility point of view and perfect for the book lover with little time to sit down.

Nowadays, audiobooks are commonplace with pretty much every book written being narrated and available digitally. And all this is thanks to a need for this content to be accessible to everyone! Essentially, if you love the ability to listen to a book anywhere, you have disability to thank for it!

What can we learn from this? 

Everybody has the right to learn, enjoy and explore content. Yes, making your site or content accessible in most cases will feel like a lot of extra work, but great accessibility technology and interfaces will always be born by a desire for inclusivity, you want everyone to understand or enjoy what you do right?

Just because you think a technology is only NEEDED by a small group of people, doesn't mean it's not capable of enriching the life of everyone

That extra work will benefit a much smaller part of your user base but we can't use that as an excuse not to put that investment of time and money into it, because you never know who you were turning away having a site that not everybody can use. And if your competitors aren't doing it then it's even more important that you do, think of the audience you are reaching that they aren't.

Be a good company, or a good person by trying the best you can to make sure most people can consume your content. We enrich the lives of people who are less fortunate than us when we innovate with accessibility technology, and as explained in this post, a simple need for blind or disabled people to "read" books eventually became a mainstream platform for podcasts and audiobooks enjoyed now by the masses, the possibilities are endless.

Finding new ways of reaching new audiences promotes innovation in design, processes and corporate thinking. Be ahead of the game!

I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject, I feel lucky that I need very little in the way of accessibility technology right now. But, as a Type 1 diabetic, there's always the possibility of a future involving some form of blindness or incapacity and here's hoping that never happens, nevertheless, that shouldn't stop me from thinking about other people and how we can use technology to make everybody's life better, bar none. Oh, and did I mention that if you have a website, making it accessible will likely get you a much better Google ranking? That'll make your bosses listen if nothing else will!

If you find this article interesting, could you please do me a favour by sharing it or commenting below, I would love to hear your and other peoples' thoughts on this subject. Thank you

Date: 31 Oct 2022
Author: Craig Pickles (YorkshireTechy)