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A network of volunteers is using information technology to make audiobooks much faster than with traditional methods to help people with vision problems get access to current information.

The volunteers have been scanning books and turning the image data into text files. Visually impaired people can then use a computer with screen reader software to hear the text read aloud.

Screen reader programs identify and interpret what is being displayed on the screen. This interpretation is then rendered in text to speech or, with the right kind of printer, Braille.

The network’s technique is dramatically faster that the traditional volunteer method of creating audiobooks for the visually impaired, which involves people donating their time and effort by recording themselves reading material out loud.

The network consists of some 190 organizations and 230 people across Japan. It started scanning books in fall 2012 and 55 volunteers are involved at present, while it also engages in conventional production of audiobooks.

The group began the work after visually restricted people started saying there was a shortage of information related to the devastating earthquake and tsunami of March 2011, according to Masako Fujita, a representative for the Zenkoku Onyaku Volunteer Network (Volunteer Network of Transcription Volunteers).

With the conventional production of an audiobook taking two to three months, it is difficult to make new publications and specialized books quickly available.

The network turned to computers and has so far converted some 40 books and 60 documents into a text format.

Kazue Itono, 56, of Shunan, Yamaguchi Prefecture, is one of the people who have benefited.

“Without support from volunteers, visually impaired people can’t study effectively in the absence of study guides designed for them,” Itono said of English, biology and two other reference books that have been converted by the network at her request to aid her 18-year-old son, Kaiki, who is preparing for college entrance examinations.

The network’s efforts are welcomed as a step toward the goal of disseminating electronic books combining visual, oral, Braille and other functions for visually impaired people, said Susumu Matsui, a blind librarian in the Chiba Prefectural Government.

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