Using Linux to Enable People with Low Vision to Read Large Print Books Online

My Mother-in-law suffers from low vision. Her vision is impaired by Macular Degeneration and Cataracts. She is also partially deaf, so listening to Audio books is not possible.

She loves to read, but even with the best reading glasses available, and 200 Watt Soft White or 100 Watt Halogen bulbs in the lamp by her chair, several years ago her reading abilities diminished to the point that she was unable to read large print books. In 2006, after more than 4 years of trying to assemble the right technology to enable her to read again, I finally developed a solution.

Before I started trying to find a solution, I knew two of the initial requirements:

It turned out I needed to account for one other problem. My Mother-in-law said that even with larger print, and the best contrast I could provide, the words were unreadable because they "ran together." She needed double-spacing - not vertically, between the lines on the pages, but horizontally, between the words on the page. And so my plan was born.

I happened to have an ancient Laptop computer. It is a Dell Latitude CPt with 384MB of RAM and a Celeron 550 MHZ CPU. This is NOT a fast laptop. In fact, a laptop with 256MB of RAM and an even slower CPU would also work. I have an upgraded 30 GB hard drive in it, but any hard drive over 2 GB would work. The laptop supports an external monitor (this is important).

To provide enough screen space for comfortable reading of LARGE PRINT, I went shopping. I looked for the highest possible contrast in a WIDE LCD monitor, and I found it in the LG Model L194WT. This LCD monitor is just over 19 inches corner to corner, WIDE, and it has a 2000:1 contrast ratio. The next best contrast ratio I could find was 1400:1, and common values for "ordinary" LCD monitors are between 400:1 and 800:1. The 2000:1 contrast is extraordinary, at least in 2006.

With the right monitor, and a dedicated computer, I needed software. At zero cost, Linux and the Firefox web browser proved to be a perfect combination. Linux is "happy" even on this old Laptop, and Firefox is the latest in Web Browsers, with all the capabilities I need. For the record, I am not using a free version of Linux. I happened to have an older version (Version 9.1) of SuSE Linux from previous use, and I installed that. ANY recent version of Linux (and yes, there are versions that are 100% free) would have worked just as well. The installation was painless. I have the docking station for the Laptop with a network connection built into it, and Linux recognized everything immediately. I hooked the system to the home network, and I was ready to download reading material!

After spending considerable time searching the Web for downloadable reading material, I came across Project Gutenberg. Fantastic! Over 17,000 books, and almost ALL of them available for download. The first book I downloaded was "Emma" by Jane Austen. If you visit that page, you will see that there are "plain text" versions to download. Those are the ones to get.

With an entire novel downloaded in minutes - even through a modem - I was ready to display the text and optimize it for reading by someone with impared vision. I wrote the following simple "Shell Script" to process the text into an HTML format with the characteristics I needed to make it readable:

--- beginning of script ---
case "$1" in
	BASE=`expr "$SOURCE" : "\(.*\)...."`
	*)echo "$0; Usage: $0 somebook.txt"


echo "<HTML>
<FONT FACE=\"verdana\" SIZE=\"+3\"><STRONG>"

# note: in the next line, its really a control M, made in vim with
# control-v control-m

sed 's/^M//
s/\(.\)$/\1\ /
s/ /\&nbsp; /g' "$SOURCE"

} > "$BASE".html

# uncomment the next line if you know vi/vim and want to clean up the text
# vi "$BASE".html

firefox "$BASE".html

--- end of script ---

The script processes a text file into an HTML document, and then launches Firefox on the HTML document. The processing does the following:

Presto! The resulting HTML file is ready to read. One other very nice characteristic of this system is that the only computer control needed by the reader is the spacebar, which advances one screen. No other keyboard or mouse use is necessary!

I always boot the Laptop and open the file, and then call my Mother-in-law to read. She loves the system!

My Mother-in-law was uncomfortable with computers, and had never used one in her life. Happily, she had no problem with this system, as it greeted her with text on the screen - ready to read - and the only "computer command" she had to learn was the spacebar. She read all three volumes of "Emma" in two weeks. Now she is bugging me to download more books!

Here are links I found useful:

Project Gutenberg - over 17,000 FREE downloadable books - a fee-based service with thousands of recent books
Low Vision Tips
Large Print Keyboards

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