Thursday, November 12, 2009

Kindle's Read-aloud Function Not Accessible for Blind Users : Maybe Kindle Is Not the Answer!

The Boston Globe included a story yesterday about the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Syracuse University in New York stating that they would not consider roll-outs of Kindle e-readers until Amazon addresses problems with accessibility for blind users. Both schools bought some Kindles this fall on trial, but were appalled to discover that the Kindle's read-aloud feature would almost certainly require assistance from a sighted companion. The National Federation of the Blind released a statement about the two universities' decisions, based on their nondiscrimination policies. The most disappointing aspect is that:

Amazon spokesman Drew Herdener said many visually impaired customers have asked Amazon to make the Kindle easier to navigate. The company is working on it, he said.

According to the National Federation of the Blind, there are about 1.3 million legally blind people in the U.S. Many more people have other disabilities such as dyslexia that make it difficult to read.

The Kindle could be promising for the visually impaired because of its read-aloud feature, which utters text in a robotic-sounding voice. For blind students in particular, the Kindle could be an improvement over existing studying techniques -- such as using audio books or scanning books page by page into a computer so character-recognition software can translate it for a text-to-speech program.

But activating the Kindle's audio feature probably requires a sighted helper, because the step involves manipulating buttons and navigating choices in menus that appear on the Kindle's screen.

The federation says the device should be able to speak the menu choices as well.
(from the Globe article) This statement from Amazon does not seem to have any urgency about it. If you go to the National Federation of the Blind website above, you may note that they do have a handheld Kurzweil reader for print material, which is interesting and must be very helpful. It seems to be in test mode, still, but the website says it will cost about the same as many flat screen televisions. It will be able:
• The Reader reads most printed documents, address labels, package information, and instructions with ease. It offers readers a choice of hearing a full page, or just a few lines for identification purposes.

• The Reader can store thousands of printed pages with easily obtainable extra memory and users can transfer files to their desktops and laptop computers or Braille notetakers.

• The Reader reads documents from computers or other devices.

• The Reader has a headphone jack so users don't have to disturb others in close proximity.

• The Reader costs about the same as many flat screen televisions today, yet has the power to revolutionize a person's life.

• Sales will be handled by K-NFB Reading Technology, Inc., and its dealer network. To locate your local dealer, call (877) 547-1500 or visit

The read-aloud feature of the Kindle was initially disabled at the insistence of the Author's Guild which saw it as potentially eating into their profitable second-market for audio books. But the robotic voice which reads for Kindle is no challenge for the professional actors who usually read the audio books, and the Author's Guild eventually caved under intense public pressure.

Librarians and activists for the visually impaired, were very disappointed, though to discover that such users would have great difficulty in managing a Kindle reader alone. I have to say that libraries and educational organizations that want to supply some kind of reader for blind and vision-impaired students or other users, might really do better to consider supplying or subsidizing the new Kurzweil hand held reader instead!

One thing that folks who have not dealt with blind "readers" who listen to books may not realize is that these folks "speed listen." Just as an experienced visual reader reads much faster than a new reader, people who listen to their reading material get so they can speed listen. My mother did recording of textbooks on request for the University of Kentucky visually impaired students for a number of years. And this is one of the things that she learned about the ways her tapes were used. Imagine if you had to listen to an entire casebook read aloud at the usual speed -- it would take FOREVER! So of course, the student learns to speed listen. I don't know if the Kindle has a function for speed listening. I suspect that the Kurzweil reader DOES, because that is the population it deals with. Just one more tiny detail that a visually impaired "reader" would care passionately about in the "reader" they would choose. Besides, who would choose a robotic voice if they didn't have to?

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