On May 1, 2013, ebook giant Amazon announced new accessibility features for the Kindle reading app, “making it easier than ever for blind and visually impaired customers to navigate their Kindle libraries, read and interact with their books, and more.” Amazon expects to have these features added to “additional platforms in the future”; however, it gave no specific dates. Amazon has been under increasing pressure from ADA-requirements (the Americans with Disabilities Act) as well as blind rights advocates to improve its products for the vision impaired. The new release has been hailed as a step forward, but it has also been criticized for lacking major accessibility elements.
A Quick Tour of the New Features
As announced in the press release, new features and options include the following:
- Read aloud more than 1.8 million titles available in the Kindle Store using Apple’s VoiceOver technology. More than 300,000 of these books are exclusive to the Kindle Store. More than 900,000 books are less than $4.99; more than 1.5 million are less than $9.99.
- Seamlessly navigate within a library or within a book, with consistent title, menu, and button names; navigate to a specific page within a book and sort books in the library by author or title.
- Read character-by-character, word-by-word, line-by-line, or continuously, as well as move forward or backward in the text.
- Search for a book within their library or search within their book and navigate to specific text.
- Add and delete notes, bookmarks, and highlights.
- Use customer-favorite features such as X-Ray, End Actions, and sharing on Facebook and Twitter.
- Look up words in the dictionary and Wikipedia.
- Customize the reading experience including changing the font, text size, background color, margin, and brightness.
- Use iOS accessibility features such as Zoom, Assistive Touch, and Stereo to Mono, as well as peripheral Braille displays.
Features are not being rolled out for all Kindles right away: “Features are available first on the Kindle app for iOS and accessibility features will be added to other Kindle apps in the future. Customers can download the new Kindle for iOS app for free from the App Store on iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch or at iTunes. Blind and visually impaired customers can also choose Kindle for PC with Accessibility Plugin, a free application for Windows PCs.”
“I think it is good and long overdue,” according to long-time advocate George Kerscher. He is secretary general of the DAISY Consortium and president of the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF), as well as senior officer of accessible technology at Learning Ally in the U.S. “They have more work to do on the iPhone App and then there are the other platforms, which must also be accessible. I hope they are putting a solid team on this to keep it moving forward; I would like see the accessibility features become a point to compete on. I also think that far more than persons who are blind benefit.”
Until the announcement, Kindle content was notable among other systems (see screens) as not accessible to blind students, even on devices that otherwise were accessible to the blind, because Amazon used a proprietary text-to-speech engine rather than allow readers a choice. Perhaps more damning, the Kindle content lacked the accessibility features required for the kind of detailed reading students need. You could have texts read aloud with text-to-speech; however, the student had no ability to use features that others take for granted: To look up words in the dictionary, annotate, or highlight passages, etc., Kindle ebooks could not be displayed on Braille devices, which made them inaccessible to blind and deaf-blind students who read Braille.
“Ebooks on the open market are a fascinating and exciting development when they are implemented accessibly,” explains Amy Mason, a member of the Access Technology Team, International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind. “They allow blind and print-disabled users to read unheard of amounts of content at the same time, price, and convenience as their print-reading peers, if the books and reading platforms are created to be accessible. These books make it possible for print-disabled readers to enjoy a novel, get an education, advance in their careers, learn new skills, and join in all of the other activities enjoyed by the book-reading public.”
In her analysis, Mason finds four major areas of concern: “First, although it is understandable that books that were created inaccessible cannot be transformed overnight, it should be a long-term goal to migrate to accessible technologies and in the short term to ensure that books are clearly marked if they are image only or otherwise inaccessible in their present condition. Second, it is imperative that the book-purchase model allow users to buy books independently from whatever portal the platform uses.”
“Third," Mason continues, “once the user has a book, the ebook reader being used should be built to comply with the standards of the operating system it sits within to allow screen access and magnification software to access the book player’s controls and the text inside the books. If this occurs, the user will be able to read with the text in the most comfortable and robust way for the text at hand, whether magnifying a chart, reading computer commands in Braille, or checking the spelling of an author’s name so that the user can purchase the next book in the series.”
“Accessibility for the blind and the visual impaired has impressively evolved during the last decade and a half thanks to the technical improvements and the effort of many foundations, libraries for the blind and companies around the globe,” explains Javier Asensio-Cubero, Essex University computer scientist. “These improvements are not only present in terms of human computer interaction, such as screen readers, Braille displays, audiobook readers and specific smartphone applications, but also in the creation and distribution of accessible content. Nowadays it is possible for blind users to obtain Braille or accessible electronic copies of many books on demand in a fairly short amount of time thanks to the new publishing technologies. But the benefits go further than just books. As an example, the Norwegian library for the blind produces daily accessible newspapers for its users. In other countries like the Netherlands, schools benefit from accessible examination programmes and pedagogical content publishing to address the needs of their visual impaired students.”
ADA-Compliance Essential in Education Markets
More than 40 years ago, Section 502 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 legally codified the concept of accessibility—and this was followed by the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 (amended in 1976), the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (amended in 2009), and Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act (2009). Simply put, these laws require businesses (with 15 or more employees), government agencies, and those nonprofit service providers to make accessibility accommodations to enable the disabled to access the same services as non-disabled. For a company such as Amazon, which has been courting educational markets for years, this lapse in planning and execution of products is a mystery.
In 2007, Amazon met with college officials to discuss pilot programs to bring Kindles into classrooms. However, these schools were sued and in an agreement with both the U.S. Department of Education and Department of Justice in 2010, they agreed to settle to avoid litigation. The DOJ statement stressed that “individuals with disabilities, including students with visual impairments, may not be discriminated against in the full and equal enjoyment of all of the goods and services of private colleges and universities; they must receive an equal opportunity to participate in and benefit from these goods and services; and, they must not be provided different or separate goods or services unless doing so is necessary to ensure that access to the goods and services is equally as effective as that provided to others.” Yet, Amazon apparently didn’t get the message.
Releases of Kindles have been many in the interim—none of which adequately addressed accessibility: Kindle DX international version (2010); Kindle DX international version (July 2011); Kindle Keyboard Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi/3G (July 2010); Kindle 4th generation and Kindle Touch (September 2011); Kindle 5th generation (September 2012), Kindle Paperwhite (October 2012); Kindle Fire & Fire HD (September 2011).
However, Amazon continued—despite very public demonstrations and press coverage—to ignore accessibility issues. Some would say that this continues today. In December 2012, blind protesters marched at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters over lack of Kindle accessibility and have issued a variety of press releases and statements relating to this long-standing concern.
Kindle APP Is a Good Start, But No Home Run
“The accessibility improvements to the Amazon Kindle iOS app opens a whole new library of reading materials for persons who are blind,” according to Jim Denham, assistive technology coordinator at the Perkins School for the Blind. “Historically, titles available in the Amazon Kindle store have been, at best, only marginally accessible to individuals who rely on screen reading software. As many books and magazines are available only via Amazon, this meant individuals who were blind had very little access to this content. This long awaited app upgrade finally resolves these issues and has resulted in individuals who are blind gaining full access to all text-based materials available from Amazon. As an individual who is blind, I appreciate these long-awaited accessibility improvements and am thankful that I, as a screen reader user, now have the same access to Amazon Kindle books that my sighted colleagues have enjoyed for years.”
Clara Van Gerven, of the National Federation of the Blind, quickly took the app out for a test workout. “Amazon has been working very hard lately to get their books into the classroom,” says Van Gerven. “Therefore, it seems especially fitting to me to give them a bit of a test, and put the grades up for all to see.” Evaluating the app under various applications and features—general layout, basic reading, academic reading, Braille support, content, and ecosystem—Van Gerven gave the new app a “C minus” rating.
“Amazon has made a good start but,” says Van Gerven, “they still have some serious work to do to come up to the standard of accessibility we hope to see for our students. Do I recommend using it? Yes … mostly … if you aren’t doing anything too serious with it, and if the Braille is not going to be a major concern. It’s got a pleasure reading grade of 77% a high C, and that would be a fair bit higher if Braille was working properly. This puts it in a similar class as the Nook app which I’ve used to read a novel or two. (Nook’s Braille is limited, but it is less likely to crack under the pressure than the Kindle app’s. Would I want my textbooks on it, for my next class, well no, nor would I want to use it to read my Kindle books in Braille, with all the difficulties encountered while testing, but for picking up a novel with speech, I’d say give it a go.”
“The good thing about Apple is, [its] operating system already has accessibility features that any apps can take advantage of, so this new Kindle app is much better than [its] previous version and I think it is quite a step forward for them,” explains S. G. Ranti Junus, Michigan State University systems librarian and primary investigator for their usability study projects. “It’s great that now blind and visually impaired users can use the accessibility features of the VoiceOver for it. The devil’s still in the details, though, and the user experience as a whole. I’m interested to see/hear/learn how actual users would interact with the app and the content, or whether the ebooks themselves are really accessible, especially if they have special features such as images, embedded video, linking within the book, footnotes, etc.”
“Ebooks on the open market are a fascinating and exciting development when they are implemented accessibly,” Mason believes. “They allow blind and print-disabled users to read unheard of amounts of content at the same time, price, and convenience as their print-reading peers, if the books and reading platforms are created to be accessible. These books make it possible for print-disabled readers to enjoy a novel, get an education, advance in their careers, learn new skills, and join in all of the other activities enjoyed by the book-reading public.”
“Despite the goals achieved so far,” Asensio-Cubero notes, “[i]t is important to keep on working to make (or have tools to make) any content accessible in an easy way and as pervasive as possible, so it is not only accessible in terms of assistive technology but also in terms of reachable and available to everyone.”
The State of Accessibility Today
“This is a big question,” according to Kerscher. “It is certainly better than ten years ago, but there is a lot more to do. Also, the digital books are changing with more interactivity and multimedia. These new features must be accessible. Then there is the math issue, which is supported in the EPUB 3 specification, but I don’t know about Amazon’s KF8 format. There needs to be a commitment to accessibility that runs through our society.”
“I think the state of accessibility today is quite improved,” according to Junus. “Many of those who are already involved in the area, including developers and application designers, and care about the standards, are already working on implementing accessibility into their products. Although, yes, [if you] compare to [the] speech recognition software from Nuance, I also sometimes feel like we’re still far behind in this area. Those who care about this issue should take every opportunity to push more and communicate with software developers, web designers, content authors, publishers, and practically anybody who works in the software industry to really put accessibility as part of their planning, design, and development process. IMO, universities and colleges should include accessibility as part of the curriculum, especially for those enrolled in the computer science, software engineering, information system, and technology-related courses.”
Marianne Diamond, president of the World Blind Union (WBU), notes that “the WBU represents over 285 million blind people throughout the world and believes strongly that the blind and others who cannot read print must have access to published materials on the same terms as the sighted. It is critical that the United States demonstrate leadership in this area by procuring and providing reading technology that everyone can use independently.”
We can hope that for Amazon, this truly is an eye-opening occasion, and it will move faster to get these basic features incorporated into all of its products. As Helen Keller is credited with saying: “The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.”