Celebrating a history of accessible reading for World Book Day, 2023

28 February 23

written by:

Sarah Kidner

(more articles)

One of life’s pleasures is immersing yourself in a good book. Innovations have made reading more accessible to people with sight loss. We explore some key milestones.

1824: The invention of Braille

Braille takes its name from its inventor Louis Braille who became blind following a childhood accident. Braille consists of a code of 63 characters.

Each character comprises one to six raised dots arranged in a six-position matrix or cell.

Louis Braille also authored the first Braille book, ‘Method of Writing Words, Music, and Plain Songs by Means of Dots, for Use by the Blind and Arranged for Them.’

Today, over 11,000 Braille books are available from the RNIB’s Library, which according to the charity, is used by more than 1,300 blind and partially sighted people nationwide.

1877: Edison invents the Phonograph

The invention of the phonograph in 1877 paved the way for audiobooks with the first recorded verse read by its inventor Thomas Edison (Mary had a little lamb).

A phonograph in a box. Reads Edison Phonograph

1934: Talking books distributed in America

The first talking books were posted to blind readers in October 1934.

They included The Bible and patriotic documents such as the American Declaration of Independence and fiction, including works by P.G Wodehouse and Rudyard Kipling.

1935: RNIB sends out Talking Books in the UK

RNIB sent out the first talking books on November 7, 1935. Distribution was inspired by the need to reach blind war veterans.

They included Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. The average novel needed ten discs, which readers played on a unique turntable.

Read more about the history of Talking Books Celebrating the history of Talking Books | RNIB at RNIB.

Listen to the Unseen Stories Podcast, Blind Veteran UK’s podcast about personal experiences of military life and sight loss Unseen Stories podcast - Blind Veterans UK.

1995: Launch of Audible

Former journalist Donal Katz launched Audible in 1995 alongside Tim Moot, formerly from tech companies Electronic Arts and Macromedia.

Audible launched an internet-ready digital audio player in 1997 (before the iPod). Called the mobile player, people could listen through headphones. The device could store two hours of audio at a time.

Amazon acquired Audible in 2008 for about $300 million (£248.3m).

The global audiobook market is anticipated to reach $35.05 billion by 2030.

October 2000: The first podcast

While not technically books, the role of podcasts share many qualities with audiobooks – they inform, inspire and entertain. Consensus is the first podcast produced was by Adam Curry, a former MTV video journalist, and his friend David Winer who wanted to find ways to download radio to the iPod (released 2001).

According to Statista, 74% of all listeners tune in to learn new things, 71% for entertainment, 60% to stay up to date with the latest topics, and 51% to relax (US).

The most popular Podcast platforms are Spotify and Apple.

2007: Amazon Kindle launches

You can’t replicate the smell of a good book, but Amazon was on a mission to copy the book experience using the Amazon Kindle. As the product has evolved, it has been enhanced with accessibility features. The Amazon Kindle Paperwhite has fonts, settings and features for disabled readers. Notably, it includes VoiceView for readers who use a screen reader.

The feature pairs with a Bluetooth speaker and reads everything on the screen out loud.

Larger fonts, larger spacing, and varied margins allow Kindle users to customise a page. 

2015: MIT Ring Reader for the Blind

The world-renowned MIT Media Lab developed a ring-like device that can recognise text and read it aloud as you move it across a page. It was cumbersome and has only just reached a stage where it is ready for testing and is still to receive a ringing endorsement from users.

  • Find out how research funded by Fight for Sight helped to magnify side vision for people with Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD)

2015: Talking books for free

In 2015, RNIB made its Talking Books available free of charge, which led to a dramatic increase in the number of people using the service.

2021: Talking Books via Amazon Alexa

In 2021, RNIB Talking Books were made available through Alexa-enabled devices, such as Amazon smart speakers using an Alexa Skill.

Discover new Alexa skills in the Dot to Dot podcast Dot to Dot - the daily 5min Alexa demo show on Apple Podcasts.

How are you enjoying reading? Is there a gadget that you’d like to share with others? Do you use some of the services and devices mentioned? We’d love to tell your story.

Email us at info@fightforsight.org.uk.