Digital books are moving beyond living rooms and into classrooms, as Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble and other publishers promote their ebooks to K-12 schools. But advocates warn that Amazon's Kindle's e-books, in particular, lock out the ability of blind pupils to study the text in detail.
"You can just listen to it, but you can't control how you listen to it," said Chris Danielsen, a spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), about Kindle e-books. While it's not difficult to convert digital text into speech that the blind can listen to — as is possible with many Kindle books — students require more tools to learn from a text, he said.
Blind students need, for example, the ability to move forward and backward in the text — line by line, word by word or even letter by letter — just as a sighted reader can skim through or reread text. Also like sighted readers, blind students need to look up words they don't know and to make notes along the way. But the proprietary Kindle format doesn’t include navigation or make the data available to accessibility software.
This Wednesday (Dec. 12), the NFB will picket Amazon headquarters in Seattle demanding that it enable blind access in its e-books. The organization expects 100 people to take part, including former New York Governor David A. Paterson, who is legally blind.
None of the capabilities the organization wants are pipe dreams for the future of e-reading. They are already available in Apple's iBooks format and app. "[Apple has] basically done it right from the beginning," said Danielsen. Blio e-books and software (created by legendary inventor Ray Kurzweil) also provide full access, he added. [See also: Your Guide to eBooks ]
That's not to say Apple didn't require some nudging. In 2008, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley and the NFB hammered out an agreement with Apple to make its university educational iTunes U store and software accessible to screen-reading software. Apple later made the rest of the iTunes store accessible as well.
Danielsen said the NFB has been talking to Amazon about making their e-books accessible for the last five years. "They have been saying that they are committed to accessibility. They just haven't been demonstrating it." (TechNewsDaily contacted Amazon repeatedly, over several days, for comment but did not receive a reply.)
Apple supports access for the blind across all its products, a company spokeswoman told TechNewsDaily. (Apple representatives often ask not to be named.) That's true not only for its iPhone and iPad devices, but also for Mac computers and even its Apple TV set-top box.
On iOS devices, Apple's VoiceOver feature speaks out the name of every menu item, button or icon that appears in the operating system and built-in programs such as the email reader and Web browser. Though it's a separate download, the iBooks app also includes VoiceOver and can read books aloud in 36 languages. Any developer can add VoiceOver to their own programs. [See also: iPad Mini Intrigues Educators ]
Even on the iPad, however, the Kindle app doesn't provide an additional accessibility features for readers, according to the NFB. That leaves the Barnes & Noble Nook as the last major e-reader system. "Barnes & Noble has just done a lot with their iOS app to make it a lot more accessible than it was," said Danielsen.
In a statement to TechNewsDaily, Barnes & Noble spokeswoman Mary Ellen Keating wrote:
On NOOK HD and NOOK HD+ [e-readers], we are testing a feature that enables accessibility (including text-to-speech and navigational controls) on books, magazines and ePub-formatted newspapers. Also of note, NOOK for iOS now supports accessibility features, including screen magnification and VoiceOver for vision-impaired users, optimized to take advantage of the latest version of the iOS software.
Amazon recently announced accessibility upgrades to the Kindle Fire tablet called Explore by Touch. But according to the NFB, which tested them, the features are limited to navigating through the operating system and settings. Explore by Touch can be used to play and pause texts, but not navigate through them as iBooks and Blio do. "It is hard to see the accessibility features in the Kindle Fire as a gesture of goodwill," wrote Amy Mason of the NFB's technology team on the organization's blog.
What if negotiations and protests don't provide the results that the NFB wants? "It's one thing for Amazon to sell this technology to consumers. But there are federal laws that they have to accommodate [for schools]," said Danielsen. "I'm not at liberty at this point to discuss our legal strategy. I will make it very clear that the legal obligation actually falls on the schools."