Authors: Lucy Afeafa Ry-Kottoh (Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi) , Samuel Smith Esseh (Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology) , Adolph Hilary Agbo (Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology)
Equal access to books and other educational materials presents equal opportunities for all to acquire education, develop skills, and realise their full potential. Drawing on data gathered through focus group discussions and interviews, our study discusses access and use of books in braille by the print-disabled in special schools/education in Ghana. The study found the supply and access to books in braille by students and teachers inadequate to support teaching and learning, mainly due to the challenges with production. Given the poor access teachers and students have to publications in braille, we argue that audiobooks be adopted as a supplementary reading format for the print-disabled in Ghana so they can have access to equal educational opportunities as their non-disabled colleagues.
Keywords: braille, access, audiobooks, print-disabled, Ghana
How to Cite: Ry-Kottoh, L. A. , Esseh, S. S. & Agbo, A. H. (2022) “Audiobooks: Improving Access to and Use of Learning and Teaching Materials for the Print-Disabled”, The Journal of Electronic Publishing. 24(2). doi: https://doi.org/10.3998/jep.983
Education is an important means by which people are empowered to enrich their lives and make a meaningful contribution to societal development. Equal access to learning materials and content plays a key role in achieving this goal. To meet the unique needs of the print disabled, specialized services, materials, appropriate technology, and media must be made available to ensure equal access to the curriculum to enable print-disabled students to compete effectively with their peers in school and ultimately in society (American Foundation for the Blind, 2005). In advocating for improved access to content across the world, the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled (2013) recommended “non-discrimination, equal opportunity, accessibility and full and effective participation and inclusion in society, proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities” (p. iii). This makes it binding on member countries of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) to follow the good practice of making available “accessible format copies” to the print disabled.
Braille is a valuable format and plays an important role in teaching and acquiring literacy skills for the print disabled. Many visually impaired relate their knowledge of braille to their competence, independence, and equality (Schroeder, 1998; as cited in Khochen, 2011). For the print disabled, books in braille are the most commonly used in special education and schools, as they are crucial in supporting literacy for the print disabled in many developing economies. Although the availability of content for the print disabled user in many countries is premised on equal access as the non–print-disabled user, what is available worldwide is grossly inadequate (Brunson, 2005), and challenges with braille literacy include the lack of access to content in braille and low competencies in its use (Brazier, 2003).
Writing on “The State of Special Schools in Ghana: Perceptions of Special Educators in Ashanti and Brong Ahafo Regions of Ghana,” Opoku (2016) revealed that teaching and learning materials provided for these schools were not adequate due to high cost. Similarly, Sikanku (2018) stated that books in braille were not delivered on time, and the ones delivered were not enough to meet the needs of students, thereby impacting negatively on their academic performance.
Print disability is the difficulty of reading printed material because of a perceptual, physical, or visual disability. This includes vision impairment or blindness, physical dexterity problems, learning disability, brain injury or cognitive impairment, literacy difficulties, and early dementia (www.visionaustralia.org). In this article, we use “print disabled” to refer to those who are totally blind or partially blind and persons with low vision because they form the group of participants for our study. According to the National Federation of the Blind (2009), “Worldwide reports reveal that there are still challenges with braille literacy. In a developed country like the United States, almost 90 percent of blind children were not learning to use braille because they did not have access to it or have not been taught how to use it” (p. 1).
Writing on the state of inclusive education, Gadagbui (2010) indicates that resources were inadequate to support students with special needs in general and the print disabled in particular. Kuyini (2010) also states that the Government of Ghana’s approach to supporting inclusive education has been piecemeal and ad hoc and does not augur well for achieving inclusion in line with the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. Inadequate access to learning content for facilitating the education of the print disabled will affect their ability to perform as expected in school and consequently deter them from having an interest in continuing their education. This may result in a high level of unemployment, poverty, and dependency.
The challenge with access and use of content in braille in Ghana stems from the limited resources and inadequate equipment to produce books in braille resulting in extreme delays in the delivery of textbooks and other educational materials for the blind (Ghana News Agency, 2001).
Challenges with access to and use of braille is not only peculiar to Ghana, as some developed countries have experienced a decline in braille literacy because of lack of competency among teachers and learners, the negative perception toward persons who use braille, and the increase in using adaptive technologies (Amato, 2009; Castellano, 2010; Mullen, 1990; Spungin, 1989). Whereas in developed countries, such as the United Kingdom, United States and Canada, institutions and associations for the blind, local non-governmental organizations, and charities appear to be better resourced to support the blind and visually impaired, this cannot be said about developing countries, in which the occurrence of “vision impairment is estimated to be four times higher than in high-income regions and with near vision impairment 80% greater in western, eastern and central sub-Saharan Africa” (GBD 2019 Blindness and Vision Impairment Collaborators, 2020; as cited in WHO, 2021, para. 6).
A survey conducted among braille readers in Ghana, Kenya, and South Africa revealed changes in braille trends and the needs of braille readers caused by issues of accessibility and affordability (Alden, 2016). The study also stated that students’ ability to effectively use materials in braille was dependent on how well they developed their tactile skills and were personally motivated to study and regularly use materials in braille. Comparing literacy skills acquisition between the visually impaired and sighted, Edmonds and Pring (2006) and Gompel et al. (2004) contend that there are no apparent differences in how the sighted and visually impaired make inferences and understand what they read. Given the fact that access to braille was challenging, and there has been a significant shift from braille as a primary medium of reading (Silverman & Bell, 2018), it is important to consider the use of other formats such as audiobooks to make content available to all.
Audiobook technology presents new ways to communicate and reach users who may be limited by print or want other convenient ways to consume content while multitasking. Audiobooks can be used by all (except the hearing impaired), irrespective of their disability status: children and adults, those who like reading, and those who do not (Alcantud-Díaz & Gregori-Signes, 2014, p. 111).
It has been argued that listening to audiobooks is not reading (Cooper, 1993) and that using audiobooks is inferior to reading print books, as it can be considered “cheating” (Rogowsky et al., 2016). However, Wolfson (2008) posited that “evidence supports the concept that listening to audiobooks is very much like reading, as readers and listeners both respond to their respective books in quite the same ways” (p. 107). Also, Tattersall Wallin and Nolin (2020) revealed that “with remediation of the printed book into audiobook subscription services, reading by listening is becoming a popular alternative to reading by seeing” (p. 470).
Literacy has evolved to mean competence, knowledge, and skill acquisition (Dubin & Kuhlman, 1992) and must be “interactive, constructive, strategic, and meaning-based” (Steelman et al., 1994, p. 201). The use of the human senses—touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing—plays an important role in literacy. While in most cases one of the senses may be used to interact, construct, make meaning, or acquire competence, knowledge, or skills, some situations may require a mix or combination of the senses. Reading facilitates literacy development and is considered a “survival skill in a complex technological society” (Walmsley, 1981, p. 80), improves comprehension (Martin, 1991), and increases the opportunity for leisure. If the purpose of reading is for comprehension, leisure, and literacy development, then it stands to reason that irrespective of how or the medium used, whether individuals achieve comprehension, leisure, and literacy development through visual, tactile, or auditory connection with the words, the end justifies the means.
Whereas no study in Ghana has been conducted on the use of audiobooks as a supplementary format in teaching and learning in schools, studies conducted in other countries reveal the benefits of audiobooks to their readers. In the United States, Whittingham et al. (2013) explored the reading practices of struggling readers as they investigated the use of audiobooks and their impact on reading ability and attitudes toward reading. Their study revealed that audiobooks had positive effects on struggling readers, as their reading examination scores were better than previous years and there were significant positive differences in the ranking of participants’ reading performance. In Russia, the use of audiobooks in an academic environment was seen to help in language acquisition as users develop comprehension and critical listening skills at advanced stages (Talalakina, 2012). This research posits the advantages of the use of audiobooks to facilitate critical listening as well as establish the basis on which audiobooks can be used in an educational environment. Also, the use of audiobooks as described by Tattersall Wallin and Nolin (2020) as “reading by listening” “may close the gender gap common in reading as the practices of men and women are very similar with men reading slightly more than women” (p. 470).
In this qualitative exploratory study, we discuss the lack of access to books in braille for the print disabled in special schools and education in Ghana. Our data were drawn from focus group discussions that involved forty-seven print-disabled students from two special schools: twenty-three blind students from the Blind Unit of the Bechem School for the Deaf and twenty-four students from the Akropong School for the Blind. Fifteen were blind, fourteen were partially blind, and eighteen had low vision. Also, six teachers, the manager of the Ghana Braille Press (GBP), an official of the Special Education Unit of the Ghana Education Service (GES), and the CEO of AkooBooks Audio were interviewed. The focus group discussions and interviews were employed to find out how readily available and accessible publications in braille were for the print disabled. We focused on production and distribution by the Ghana Braille Press to answer the question of availability and access and how publications in braille were used by teachers and students in special schools and education in Ghana.
The choice of focus group discussion (FGD) and interviews were for practical reasons of verbally interacting and gathering firsthand data and also because the researchers could not read in braille and the participants could not read print. Participants’ responses were transcribed and analyzed based on our thematic areas. This article discusses the challenge with access to books in braille and makes a case for the adoption of audiobooks as a supplementary reading format for the print disabled in special education in Ghana.
Our study revealed that braille is the only format used by the print disabled in special education in Ghana. Although international and national policies seek to promote quality and equal access to education and, by extension, unrestricted access to books and learning materials (Government of Ghana, 1992; Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled, 2013; Persons with Disability Act, 2006; UNESCO, 2016), our research indicates that students and teachers in special schools had poor access to publications in braille, thereby hampering effective teaching and learning.
This inadequate access compels the print-disabled students to depend solely on lesson notes dictated to them by their teachers. The study found that to improvise for an English textbook, for instance, some teachers make copies of their notes in braille, distribute the notes during lessons, and collect them after the end of each class. This limited access indicates that students cannot read or have access to content after school. The teachers also revealed that students who were unable to read in braille repeat their class or are demoted, whereas others drop out along the way. This occurrence corroborates Carstens’s (1996) assertion that students with reading difficulties are usually frustrated and try to avoid class activities that require reading a book.
The research found that the Ghana Braille Production Centre, the only press that produces publications in braille, lacks a consistent supply of resources because of inadequate government funding and budgetary allocations to keep up with production to meet the needs of the print disabled. As a result, the press depends on the support of philanthropists to continue operating. An interview with the manager of the press revealed frequent machine breakdown and the lack of in-house expertise to repair the broken-down machines. He illustrated that broken-down embossers are sent for repairs on a fourteen-hour journey by road on public transport and returned after a week through the same means. Other challenges include delay in communication of changes in school syllabi, putting production deadlines and supply schedules out of sync. Complaints about inadequate or delay in supply often degenerate into a conflict between workers of the press and the heads of the schools.
To support the production system, digital text documents need to be sent to the braille embosser, but the lack of internet access at the press makes this impossible. Given that GBP is unable to keep up with production to sufficiently meet the needs of the print disabled, and the fact that GES has no immediate plans to “buy” braille services outside the country, a supplementary format such as audiobooks (produced locally) must be introduced in special schools.
Through a collaboration between the Mmofra Foundation, Afram Publications Ghana Limited, and the Estate of Efua Sutherland, the first two locally produced audiobooks for children were introduced into the Ghanaian book market: Tahinta! A Rhythm Play for Children (1999) and Voice in the Forest (2006) (http://mmofraghana.org/our-work/made-by-mmofra/). After a long gap in the production of audiobooks, African Audio Publishers, a books on cassette tape service for distributing African books to the blind and visually impaired, emerged in 2004. As digital audiobooks technology had not yet emerged on the Ghanaian book market, books on cassettes were mainly the audiobooks on the Ghanaian market.
African Audio Publishers later became AkooBooks Audio in 2017, to take advantage of the following:
The explosion of African writing talent, the advent of new mobile technologies for distribution and mobile payment options and the emergence of “voice” as an important commerce platform (e.g. audio smart phone intelligent voice assistants), the huge untapped opportunity to address the abysmally low levels of literacy due to poor educational systems, collapsing book industries and bad reading culture to offer digital audio publishing services to a global community. (Ama Dadson, founder and CEO of AkooBooks Audio, interview with authors, November 17, 2019)
Currently, as the only indigenous producer in the audiobook subsector in Ghana, AkooBooks Audio has produced eight audiobooks (none audio first) and partners with Libro.fm. Its AkooBooks App was made available on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store in October 2019.
Although Amazon’s Audible.com is a dominant player in the audiobook market with Google Play Books, Storytel Youscribe, and others all playing significant roles in the international market, the lack of industry data on the Ghanaian book industry makes it impossible to empirically discuss the role these international audiobook producers play in the Ghanaian audiobook subsector.
Audiobooks can be used as learning materials for the print disabled. According to Ozgur and Gurcan (2004), audiobooks can be used everywhere at any time without the help of others, as they create an environment that provides and enriches the individual learning experience for the print disabled. Although the use of audiobooks has the advantage of convenience over conventional books and reading, Quinn (2016) posited that users of audiobooks can be easily distracted as listeners can be interrupted by ideas that are triggered during listening, causing them to miss part of the narration and therefore have to rewind. Also, because audiobooks are technology dependent and require appropriate devices to support their use, access to the right technology and devices is critical to facilitate their uptake, which can be expensive in developing economies. Access to the internet to download audiobooks or surf audiobooks websites online is crucial (Sharma, 2019).
Furthermore, not all books can be easily adapted for an audio platform, especially those with concepts that need visuals to reinforce the content or message, for example, for subjects that require calculations and drawing, such as mathematics, physics, chemistry, and technical drawing. Audiobooks are also considered less engaging. Kiante (2018) argued that with audiobooks, listeners cannot highlight, annotate, and conveniently reread a page over and over, so readers engage with the text on a shallow level. Likewise, many audiobooks lack a reference section, thereby limiting learners in researching since they cannot rely on audio to write their paper (Reily, 2019).
Ghanaian consumers are relatively new to African audiobooks because there are not many African audiobook publishers, except for AkooBooks Audio and the South African Audioshelf.co.za. Audiobooks have great potential because of the already established digital infrastructure and the high penetration of the use of mobile phones (Laary, 2016) to support its uptake and use.
Ghanaians are predominately oral in culture, talking and listening people. This is evident in the number of FM radio stations that operate in Ghana. As of June 2018, there were 487 authorized FM radio broadcasting stations in Ghana: 31 public radio stations, 5 public (foreign) radio stations, 71 community radio stations, 22 campus radio stations, and 358 commercial radio stations. By December 2018, 398 radio stations were operating on the airwaves (https://www.nca.org.gh/industry-data-2/authorisations-2/fm-authorisation-2/). Transitioning from braille to audiobooks, therefore, should not be a challenge, especially if it is affordable.
Research has established that students who enjoy reading and spend more time reading in and out of school excel academically and read better than those who do not (Anderson et al., 1988; Mol & Jolles, 2014; Sullivan & Brown, 2013). The use of audiobooks in special education schools is appropriate not only for the print disabled but also for students who have reading difficulties and are easily fatigued from reading long texts (Hiebert et al., 2010). Audiobooks can be used as an alternative format for acquiring knowledge and comprehension and literacy skills. In the same vein, Wolfson (2008) argued that “since the reading process develops through our experience with oral language, audiobooks simply provide another opportunity to increase the understanding and appreciation of the written word. Audiobooks can model reading, teach critical listening, build on prior knowledge, improve vocabulary, encourage oral language usage, and increase comprehension” (p. 106).
From a supply perspective, AkooBooks Audio revealed that the cost of production of audiobooks makes it daunting for publishers to put together catalogs: the cost of full-length audiobooks ranges from GHC 4,500 to GHC 10,000, the equivalent of US$800 to US$1,800. Whereas these figures may appear reasonable to publishers in Europe and North America, funding publishing projects in Ghana is a challenge, especially among small publishers, who lack capital and have limited access to credit because commercial banks charge high interest rates of 25% to 30% (Ry-Kottoh, 2017).
However, in comparing the cost of procuring audiobooks for use in schools with books in braille, audiobooks are cheaper since a copy can be simultaneously listened to or read by a class of print-disabled students, whereas several copies of a book in braille will have to be distributed to every print-disabled student in a class to meet their needs. Furthermore, with indigenous expertise in audiobook production available (AkooBook Audio, the Mmofra Foundation, and Afram Publications Ghana Limited), mainstream publishers can explore licensing audio rights to print publications as a way to diversify their publishing portfolios.
In choosing audiobooks, the quality, relevance of content, how effectively the narrators communicate, and how that will motivate students to read and enjoy their interaction is important (Brown, 2003; Kaiser, 2000). Local voice talents or professional narrators, some with international experience, have been used in the production of audiobooks in Ghana. The mix of local and international experience makes the content appealing to a wider audience. When professional narrators, recognized actors, and sometimes the authors themselves read the book, it adds an extra dimension to a read-aloud experience, and they become models for reading through their inflection, tone, dialect, pacing, pausing, silence, and different voices (Baskin & Harris, 1995).
Adopting audiobooks for use in special schools for the print disabled has implications for GBP and local publishers or content creators. High interest and subsequent uptake of audiobooks by the print disabled has the propensity to cannibalize the books in braille, especially in subjects that are language based or fall within the humanities or general arts category.
Publishers and authors must be encouraged to explore or consider audio versions of schoolbooks to reach and meet the needs of the print disabled. This must begin with licensing or selling audio rights of their content to audiobook producers who have the expertise and the market intelligence to produce and distribute audiobooks to all, especially the print disabled. Because “the government plays a major role in the textbook sector since it is the principal buyer and supplier of textbooks in the country … creating an enormous opportunity and a ready market for publishers who can meet this demand” (Ry-Kottoh, 2017, p. 116), government and advocates of disability issues and equal access to education must be willing to invest in audiobook pilot projects.
This approach would bridge the gap of access between the print disabled and their non–print-disabled contemporaries as audio versions of schoolbooks are made available to print-disabled students. Furthermore, adopting audiobooks in schools requires a reliable infrastructure to facilitate its use: the internet to support downloading and streaming and an uninterrupted supply of electricity to power the devices, tapes, and other listening devices.
In this article we have discussed the access to and use of books in braille for the print disabled in special schools and education in Ghana. Our study found the supply and access to books in braille for students and teachers inadequate to support teaching and learning mainly due to the challenges with production and therefore recommend the adoption of audiobooks for the print disabled. Although braille will continue to be useful because of its unique features and how books in braille meet learning requirements of literacy for the visually impaired or print disabled (Braille Revival League of California, 2018), in situations where learning materials in braille are not available or accessible, audiobooks can serve as a supplementary format for the print disabled. As Tattersall Wallin and Nolin (2020) aptly put it, “new media rarely replaces old media completely, as essential elements and aspects are renegotiated” (p. 471).
Furthermore, publishers and authors must be willing to explore the opportunity that the benefits of audiobooks bring not only to the print disabled but to all readers, including those who struggle to read, to enhance comprehension, literacy, and language skill development. Publishers can make audio versions of their books, especially schoolbooks, available for platforms and devices they consider appropriate for their business models, such as CDs, iPods, MP3 players, with options for downloading and streaming. Since funding to produce catalogs is a challenge for audiobook producers, it is important for the government, the main procurer of textbooks for schools in Ghana, to make funds available as grants.
Government funding will incentivize audiobook producers and support audiobook production for the print disabled—especially for language-based subjects in which reading, conceptualization, and comprehension are easier with audiobooks than in subjects that require calculations and drawing, such as mathematics, physics, chemistry, and technical drawing. This investment is necessary as government and civil society organizations work toward quality education and equal access to education for all.
We appreciate the contributions of Ama Dadson, founder and CEO of AkooBooks Audio, for sharing information on her company’s activities and Sandra Yeboah, Eunice Gyan, and Kenneth Oppong for their assistance with the fieldwork.
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