Contributor Robert Kingette – Accessible PDF with WebbIE

The sad truth is that many e-books are not very useful for the visually impaired.  I have come across numerous instances where I can’t even read a book, let alone navigate it. And here I’m supposed to study it for class!  All I can do is hunt, peck, and, yes, even beg in some cases for another format of the same book. PDFs can be like potluck. I’ll be lucky if I can even read one line.  Stay tuned, however. I’ll tell you about WebbIE’s free “Accessible PDF Reader”—which may help, at least with non-DRMed e-books. The developers describe WebbIE as “A web browser for blind and visually impaired people,” and I think it’s a great step in the right direction.


What it’s like being me

I’ll be in 12th grade in high school this year, and I love books.  My eye condition, which is something called retinopathy, arising from a premature birth, means that I can see only in one eye, and it has tunnel vision.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, make a C around your left eye, and cover the other eye completely. Presto, you’re me!  With this issue comes smaller ones, also annoying. I can’t read a regular book unless my nose and it are meeting face to face, even with a magnifier. That’s why I live on the computer, or just get audio books.


Limited audio book choices

I can’t find everything in print in audio. A good example would be the Darren Shan series. There is no audio version of that here in the United States, and I can’t get it through National Library Service for the Blind, so it kind of irks my tidy mind when someone says it’s the best book that I will ever read, if I can. I love how he puts the “if I can” part in there. Makes me feel so much better. It is as if I smelled a delicious candy bar but couldn’t buy it because the store wouldn’t take my money.


Hopes dashed: No vampire story, just gibberish

I looked for an eBook version of the Darren Shan series, and I discovered many options.  I downloaded a copy from and opened it up with Adobe Reader. My screen reader, JAWS 9.0, a text-to-speech program that sounds like a robot to those who are not used to it, said “blank” when I first opened it up. I thought it was just the cover page, and it was. With my nose pressed to the screen, I tried the next page where I could see some text.  So I pressed the down arrow, but instead of hearing, “My name is Darren Shan, and I’m a vampire,” all I heard was blank, blank, blank, blank. I also heard, “Unlabeled graphic =+36756? 4. Image.gif.”

Wow! I didn’t know that was there! I tried exporting it as a text file, which you can do in Adobe Reader within the File menu, and I opened up the text file ready to dive into some spooky story. I tried pressing the down arrow, and heard nothing. All I heard was blank, blank, blank. I half expected my computer to say, “Nothing’s there, Ding bat. Stop pounding on me.” But it didn’t, and I did a search for a different novel.


Tangling with Adobe Reader

I found one I could read, but not post to a text file so I could easily navigate it. I had to fight with Adobe to just make it read the table of contents. I kept pressing the down arrow, reading line by line, and not by paragraph like I could have done if I had it in a plain text version.  This soon grew so frustrating I just deleted the book altogether. Also, all the unlabeled images and all the weird graphics in the book were honestly giving me a headache. I didn’t like hearing image.567.gif, and untitleddarrenshanimage=67.gif. I vowed never to read e-books again!


WebbIE to the rescue

Not to be discouraged, I did read another e-book the next day, and it was part of the Darren Shan series. I did it with the help of WebbIE’s “Accessible PDF” part of the accessible programs package. When I saw this on Google, I wanted to race outside in my underpants!  “Could this be my solution?” I wondered.

I downloaded it and installed it right away.  Even my sweat was sweating when I fired up the program and tried to open a PDF with it. It worked! I saw text on the screen, but was it like my math paper? Did it have jumbled numbers or did it contain actual words? I tried pressing the down arrow to hear the first line and luckily it read it without any issues.


Easy to use

Accessible PDF is actually the simplest thing you can ever come across. It also works in high contrast; so if you, like me, want to have black text on white, it’s no problem. If you want to have white text on black, it can do that as well.  The program is actually simpler in terms of navigation than in Adobe Reader. All the menus are nicely laid out at the top of the window, and you can change the font size and color. It is, like my sister’s room, very clean and organized; and like my brain, it works all the time.

Don’t get me wrong. I have complaints about Accessible PDF, and it won’t make the whole PDF accessible.  To make it perfect, some part has to be done by the author.

Unfortunately many authors are so afraid that by opening PDF’s to accessibility, they also open them up to copyright issues, as well.

For example, in accessible PDF, I don’t know why, but the Darren Shan books were not formatted right. I tried reading by paragraph but it skipped roughly twenty pages, and it went to the end of books in some cases.  This is how I had to read this fast-paced book…

He ran to the
And found something
That resembled
A pea.

Imagine reading with so many pauses. Gosh! Boring, right? I want to have a book be interesting. I guess I shouldn’t complain, but then again I wouldn’t have to be reading like this if authors would make their e-books accessible in the first place.


How Accessible PDF could be still better

Accessible PDF is great over-all, but in some ways it irks me.  To start, there’s no reflow function. In Adobe there is something called reflow, under view mode, that makes the text wrap all the way to one side of the document, if it’s allowed to do it, anyway. I have only come across maybe seven out of the 56 books I’ve downloaded which had this feature. It was great since I had a high magnification.  Another shortcoming is that you have to open a PDF file within the application, a small, time-wasting annoyance.

It also won’t convert images to text. If an author of an e-book has provided Alt text descriptions to images, then it will just look like another paragraph.  If they don’t, you wouldn’t even know it’s there.  The application can even read documents from Web pages, but I have never gotten this feature to work at all, leaving me to fill up my hard drive with e-books.  That said, it’s easy to navigate through the program with just the keyboard and the buttons are labeled well. I really do love this program.

This simple little program will make blind people jump and scream in delight no matter how careless the author is towards the blind and or disabled. It may even make things better for some sighted people as well.  While the program still has some minor bugs and glitches, doesn’t have as many features as it could have, and is hard to find on the Web, it sure did make me want to run with glee outside in my underpants. This will be the program that will break down the walls of bad PDF tagging, and open a door that I’m sure never occurred to the author’s mind. It would be a good marketing tool for authors as well if they want to get their e-books sold or distributed to a wide variety of people.

That being said, not all PDF’s will open, and that is due to the bad tagging in the documents. This is getting tiresome, isn’t it?. Do we honestly have to fight so hard for equal access to books? I mean it’s kind of sad that a completely different program has to be made, distributed, and downloaded just so that blind people can read PDF’s. In my book that’s awfully pathetic.  Like a Lifesaver, though, this program is sweet, good, and it’s long lasting. Will it be better in the near future? Will it be the main tool used for PDF’s? Who knows. But checking out this program is definitely a start and I highly recommend it.

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