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Hands-free reading

A book open on a table
A hardcover book opened wide with the pages fanned out on a table.
Image source: Mikolaj/Unsplash

In Why Holding a Book in Your Hands is a Terrible Way to Read a Text, Leanpub co-founder Len Epp notes that when reading for research purposes, you must put the book down, find a way to keep it open, and look down at the book while typing on your computer screen and repeat every time you want to note a quotation or passage in the book. And if your research involves antique or rare books, you may not be able to touch them or turn the pages as handling them contributes to their deterioration. Aside from research, there are other advantages to reading hands-free including constant tension in your hand and arm muscles and if you are using both hands to hold the book, it can be difficult to hold the book open to take notes. And for some people with print disabilities, holding a book can be impossible.

History of Hands-Free Reading

In the fifth century, the Catholic Church began producing very large mass and hymn books, which were displayed on a lectern in the middle of the altar so choir members could follow along. These books were meant to be read communally and from a distance and any sense of personal possession were not allowed. To enable the choir to read comfortably, a number of devices were invented, and lectern desks adapted, to allow for hands-free reading (Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading).

A desks with revolving table tops
A wooden desk with an extendable top and a lectern with a rotating system of bookshelves.
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Displayed in the Palazzo Reale di Napoli, in Naples, Italy, this desk has an extendable top and a lectern with a rotating system of bookshelves, allowing for the simultaneous reading of multiple books (ArtSupp, 2022).

A wooden chair with an extenable desktop
A wooden reading chair with an attached desk
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This 1750's reading chair allowed the reader to sit astride and face the desk on the back of the chair while leaning on the armrests for comfort and support. The chair even has candle holders on each side to provide light for readers (The Met, 2022).

Hands-free Devices

A finger touching an open book
A closeup of an index finger touching an open book.
Image source: Valentin balan/Unsplash

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic disease characterized by inflammation, joint pain, stiffness, and swelling caused by an immune system response. is a platform for people with RA and caregivers to learn, educate, and connect with peers and healthcare professionals. In a 2016 blog post, Reading Without Hands, moderator Wren writes about her love of reading and how books transformed her life - "with a book in my hands, I've travelled the world" without ever leaving her chair. She loves books- their shapes, paper, cardboard, glue, and ink; their "book-scent," and their solid weight in her hands. Wren explains how books can distract her from her joint pain and how they are as important as the medications she takes to help relieve the pain.

Several years ago, the pain became so fierce that Wren had to stop reading books- she couldn't hold them in her hands anymore. Gifted with an e-reader, the reading experience was different, but the device was lightweight, easy on her hands, and a simple press of a button turned the page. Thinking about how much she loved being read to as a child, Wren fell in love with audiobooks, and now "reads" books by listening to them.

Hands-free devices are useful for people who can't hold a book open or turn pages, as well as for people who need to use their hands while following instructions.

  • Book holders include brackets that clip onto the book and thumb page holders that hold books open and pages in place; devices that can rest on a table, lap, or bed; or an adjustable floor book stand on wheels.
  • Book bones and weighted bookmarks are sturdier than brackets, as they are heavier, and hold pages in place even outside on a windy day.
  • Book stands come in a variety of sizes and can be made from a variety of materials including wood, plastic, or metal. They are typically adjustable to the size of a book and a reader's preferred reading angle.
  • Page turners are assistive devices for those who find it difficult to turn the pages of a book. Automatic page turners work with both books and magazines and can be customized and adjustable. Manual page turners are used by people with limited mobility. Hand-strapped page turners can also be used as a typing aid. About the size of a pencil, they have a rubber tip that straps around the person's hand. Mouth page turners are between eight and 12 inches long and attach to a retainer-like bite plate that the user holds in their mouth to operate the stick. A head pointer is similar but is strapped to the head. These devices can also be used as a stylus for a touch-screen tablet or cell phone.

Large Print

Large-print books are designed for those who have difficulty reading a regular-sized font. This includes people with low vision, macular degeneration, cataracts, or people who need glasses to read. The typical font size in a book is 12 points, while the minimum font size for a large-print book is usually 18 points, depending on the typeface and number of pages in the book. But there is more to a large-print book than just a larger font – paragraph spacing, alignment and even the way the text is written (for instance, using bold instead of italics) all help improve comprehension for the reader, and can, in some cases, reduce eye strain.

Guidelines from the American Council for the Blind (ACB) for large-print documents include the following:

  • Use at least an 18-point font.
  • Use a sans serif font.
  • Use a line leading of 1.5 or higher for readability and less eye strain.
  • Double space paragraphs instead of indenting them.
  • Use ragged-right text.
  • Titles and headings should be in a larger font and aligned to the left.
  • Bulleted items should be double-spaced.
  • Use only black coloured text.
  • Use bold to emphasize text instead of italics.
A close-up of pair of glasses and a magnifying glass on top of an open book.
Image source: Wallace Chuck/Pexels
Multiple book covers for CNIB Print Guide on a blue background.
Image source: Jennie Grimard.
An illustrated blue notebook with a-z in white letters on the cover.

The goal of Canadian National Institute of the Blind (CNIB) is to create a barrier-free Canada so everyone, regardless of level of vision loss, can fully participate in society. The CNIB accessible print guide offers guidelines to making print as clear and readable as possible.

Illustration of a lit lightbulb

Spotlight: Paislee and the Talking Tree, Bruce Simpson

Paislee and the Talking Tree book cover
Paislee and the Talking tree book cover illustration of a person lying under a tree in front of a house.
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Inspired by his neighbour's love of trees, Bruce Simpson wrote and self-published his first book, Paislee and the Talking Tree, a children's title illustrated by Rae Bates that is helping to bring attention to accessible formats, particularly American Sign Language (ASL). Seeking ways to make the book accessible, the Hamilton-based kindergarten teacher and musician began by having two braille copies created that he intends to donate to the collection at the Centre for Equitable Library Access (CELA). He then worked with Canadian Hearing Services (CHS) to translate the book and its accompanying song, "The Tree Said Hello," into ASL, both of which were performed by Canadian deaf actress Dawn Jani Birley. Bruce has made these performances available for free on YouTube. "I didn't really know how they were going to do it," Bruce admits. "I just gave them all the material and waited for months...and it all worked out." A friend of his has translated Paislee into French, and he recently ordered an LSQ (Langue des signes du Québec, or Quebec French Sign Language) version of the book through Canadian Hearing Services that will include French audio.

Paislee and the Talking Tree highlights the importance - and rarity - of professionally produced American Sign Language (ASL) titles, especially for children. Bruce says he doesn't know any Canadian websites that gather professionally produced ASL book videos, though The American Society for Deaf Children houses about 150 titles, many of them older and homemade. "It is important to provide exposure to ASL as a first language during those [early] years," says Mohawk College professor Evan-Wyatt Sanley Le Lievre (Tresidder). For children whose only language is ASL, translations like Bruce's are critical to their social inclusion and early literacy. "We applaud [Bruce's] willingness to share his talent widely by making the materials accessible in ASL," said Brian McKenzie, director of interpreting and translation services at Canadian Hearing Society (CHS). "The addition of an ASL translation allows the creativity and artistic nuances to be enjoyed and experienced visually in ASL."

Multiple book covers for ‘Accessible Print Books’ on a purple background.
Image source: Jennie Grimard.
An illustrated blue notebook with a-z in white letters on the cover.

Following research and guides published by Accessible Books Consortium, Association of Registered Graphic Designers, Braille Authority of North America, CNIB Clear Print Guidelines, and Print Disability Clear Print Guidelines, this guide is a broad overview that briefly outlines current and developing practices in accessible print book publishing. It explores book design, print book basics, braille, and large print, and includes a Quality Assurance Checklist for accessibility. A glossary of terms related to accessible print books is included, as well as list of further resources.