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The Kindle and Accessibility

One of the most popular topics in the technology and reading circles I frequented in the last few months was the Kindle from Amazon. If you’re not sure what it is, I’ll post a list of background reading at the bottom of this post. Basically, it’s an e-book reading device for the sighted. It sounds like a cool tech toy, though now that it’s been out for a while, I am hearing more negative reviews of it. The thing is, I think as a group, those of us who are blind missed out on a great advocacy chance with this device. I’ve debated whether to write this post because I know it could come off as criticism or flaming, but I’ve decided that if I don’t say it, others may not either, and I’m curious to see if I’m off base here.

My first reaction to the Kindle was “so what? At least they can get any book they want in print. We have to wait months sometimes, if we even get the books at all.” And since I’ve used devices like the BrailleNote, Bookport and my love the Stream, I have a whole lot more access to books. So in that way, the balance was starting to equal out. The lack of reading material is improving due to services like the Library of Congress’s Talking and Braille book programs, Bookshare and services for all such as Audible. We are finally hitting a point where we’re getting access to lots of diverse reading opportunities. And when you consider blogs, online newspapers and RSS feeds, things are even better. Butt, the Kindle just recreated the power struggle we’ve always had with print books.

Think about it, these are electronic books. You can’t tell me, as we always heard “It just takes longer to make books in formats you can read.” These books are in electronic format, and given the ability to highlight and look up words, it doesn’t sound like the texts are in image format either. So, what they are is encrypted files which contain e-texts, similar to what we have been using as blind people ever since they became available. But, they’re locked into an inaccessible platform. I can’t use the Kindle because it doesn’t have a speech-enabled interface. I can’t buy the e-book from Amazon and read it on the Stream or my laptop with Window-Eyes or my BrailleNote because it’s a proprietary format which can only be used on an inaccessible device.

Yes, the Kindle does have the ability to enlarge text, from what I understand. But that doesn’t work for the large group of users for whom minimal enlargement isn’t an effective option.
I think there could, theoretically, be options available to Amazon if they want to start considering accessibility needs. They could make daisy copies available to those with a print disability. Any player which supports the new NLS talking book format could be authorized in a similar way. They could also make the books available in, say, an accessible PDF file, but I think that daisy is a whole lot more flexible and has, in many ways, revolutionized the book market for those of us who are blind.
That’s my main thought for ideal options now that the Kindle has been released and is inaccessible. My feeling is that this is a chance for the mainstream publishers to work with us further. We have much knowledge to offer them about making books in new formats work, and they have the technology, smarts and diversity of content to help widen our available reading material. Collaboration could potentially revolutionalize our reading opportunities.

I do have a few things to add, to give you some context to better what I’m saying, and just as importantly, what I’m not saying. First, I’m not saying that I blame anyone specifically. As blind people, we had no idea this was coming out until it did. And I don’t have any history on how Amazon has responded to accessibility requests in the past. What I am saying is that it’s unfortunate that we weren’t considered in the design of the Kindle or the distribution of reading material. And I’m also saying that we still have an opportunity: between Amazon and those who know about blindness technology, a lot of good could come of the Kindle.

To Kindle or Not to Kindle
The Future on Reading: A Long Article on the Kindle and some surrounding issues
The Amazon Kindle
The Daisy Consortium
Library of Congress Braille and Talking books
Humanware which makes the Stream and BrailleNote


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Dec. 30th, 2007 12:01 am (UTC)
I feel fortunate to have choices, as a sighted person. I'm not interested in the kindle, however. Ebooks don't interest me; I actually suck up audio books from every source offered, since I love to listen to audiobooks while working, cleaning and exercising.

I prefer real books for reading. Especially in the air, as there is no restriction on paperbacks during take off and landing.
Jan. 3rd, 2008 04:55 am (UTC)
Yeah, the paperbacks do have the non-electricity advantage. I like that, when using braille. But in the air there isn't enough room between the seats for braille books (they're much larger than print).
Jan. 3rd, 2008 02:06 pm (UTC)
I'd not thought about how much larger braille books are. That would definitely make electronic alternatives much more attractive, especially when traveling.
Jan. 3rd, 2008 06:17 pm (UTC)
Puppybraille raises some good points in this post. One comment I would like to add about the Kindle is that I am surprised it does not work everywhere! For more information, see my blog at http://talkingbookslibrarian.blogspot.com/

The specific blog entry about this can be found at http://talkingbookslibrarian.blogspot.com/2007/12/does-new-amazon-kindle-work-where-you.html
Dec. 30th, 2007 02:34 am (UTC)
I'm not disappointed that the Kindle itself doesn't have text-to-speech output. The gimic of the Kindle is that it has amazing battery life because its display is "digital paper" technology that doesn't need to use energy to maintain its display like an lcd, it only uses power to change the image that's displayed.

I am, however, disappointed that they aren't making the books that are available on the Kindle available in accessible formats. It seems to me like a bad business decision. They'd sell a LOT more books if they had a free software player that could both display text for sighted people and allow text-to-speech for blind and learning disabled people.
Jan. 3rd, 2008 04:57 am (UTC)
Yeah, your point about the battery life is a great one. I also agree on the software, but suspect they decided to avoid creating software to focus more on the hardware. I don't think that's the best move (look at Humanware who has software and hardware players for example). Thanks for commenting!
Dec. 31st, 2007 03:55 am (UTC)
Remember, this is your journal, write any critic for any piece of technology and you are right on in your theory about the Kindle, although I never heard of it until reading your entry! LOL! I am always behind in what's up!
Jan. 3rd, 2008 04:34 am (UTC)
It's interesting that you decided to write about this subject, because I discovered the Kindle whild doing my Christmas shopping and harbored the same reservations and questions you did. Serendipidously, this blog entry came across my desk. It helped to put things in perspective in terms of what we as blind people feel we demand in terms of equal access, especially coming from those less-informed individuals who are not aware of the "separate" but not always "equal" alternatives. My feeling on the Kindle is that they've just come up with a sleeker device to display the content of digitized books. Where is this content coming from? We need to find out who's producing it, and go after them the way Kindle did with a device that displays the text in an alternate format for the blind capable of reading the same content. The algorithm for Kindle content just needs to be packaged in another device (is this functionality that could be added to the Stream since it can now play paid Audible content?)

BTW, I'll have to sometime tell you the story of how I purchased secured PDF books which had the feature to allow access by screen readers disabled, and how I was able to get the author to re-encode the books and send them to me to prevent losing his money.
Jan. 3rd, 2008 05:04 am (UTC)
Interesting post you linked to! Your analysis seems right on. It brings to mind the question of whether blindness specific stuff si best, or mainstream stuff adapted. I've hit the point where I answer that question "it depends."

I would love to see the Stream enabled to work with some of these other E-Book formats, or, as you said, work like it does with Audible. Hope this makes sense, it's late and my brain is shot.
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