How blind-friendly are Amazon’s Kindle apps for the iPhone and iPad? And what about those for other operating systems?

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Update here.

Amazon-PaperwhiteText to speech is AWOL from Amazon’s beautiful Paperwhite Kindles (photo), and LibraryCity’s complaint made a stir, complete with a link at The Verge, a major tech site.

Keep your related comments coming. I especially like those from David Goldfield, a blind Philadelphian who is an accessibility expert and activist. Please sign the Reading Rights Coalition’s petition he pointed me to—one against the loathsome practice of TTS blocking. Shame, shame, shame on the Authors Guild and the like-minded. Just plain wrong. And I speak as a writer, too, not just a reader—since so many time-strapped people these days want to enjoy books while commuting or exercising but don’t need human narration. The machine kind is improving. But the most devoted audio-books fans will still buy the human versions.

Blind-hostile apps from Amazon?

Wait; there’s more! Over at the Mac-cessibility Network, Josh de Lioncourt writes of “Amazon’s seemingly stubborn insistence to keep accessibility out of their Kindle apps on Apple platforms. Baking in VoiceOver support in iOS would entail a fraction of the costs involved in including speakers and TTS in Kindle devices.” Josh obviously wishes I’d raised the VoiceOver issue. Done! Of course, in fairness to Amazon, is it possible that Apple deliberately introduced some technical complications to make it harder for the iOS Kindle apps to offer VoiceOver?

I’d welcome related comments from David G. and others, not just on the Kindle iOS app but also on those in other operating systems. Believe me, this is worth the trouble. Amazon is PR- and image-conscious, and if enough people speak out, then we may well see some changes. On a separate matter, Amazon has already backed down from its insistence on inflicting ads on all buyers of the Fire series, even those willing to pay for their disappearance.

Could Amazon show similar flexibility about TTS and related essentials?

I fervently believe that all Amazon e-reading products should be blind friendly at no extra cost, just as iPads are with VoiceOver; and TTS should be standard in all Amazon hardware. But the next best thing would be for Jeff Bezos & friends to let us, as an option, pay just a little extra for Paperwhite Kindles or Fires with TTS. Ideally the voices would be of Ivona quality, and if Amy, my fave, is among the choices, then so much the better. “Us” should include both sighted and blind people, of course. Along the way, Jeff, strive for optimal audio guidance to help the blind navigate through the Paperwhite and Fire menus. Think of the good-karma potential here. Consideration of the blind, the dyslectic, and others with reading challenges—the blind are hardly the only disabled people benefitting from TTS and related technologies—just might result in more government and K-12 business for Amazon. Bureaucracies at all levels, not just in the States but elsewhere, should send Jeff this message, loud and clear.

Meanwhile I’ll welcome comments from LibraryCity visitors—community members in time, I hope—on the degrees of blind-friendliness in Amazon’s various e-reading apps. The more specifics, the better. Be fair. If you think Amazon is doing certain things right, as is at least somewhat true with the PC app, then say so! But don’t neglect areas needing improvement.

Detail: The anti-TTS-blocking petition is a bit out of date, in that so far Amazon has resisted the pressure to deprive all books of TTS. But countless titles are blocked because authors and publishers exercised Amazon’s option to do so, so your signing the petition will still be useful—especially since Amazon seems to be scaling back its support for TTS.

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8 comments to “How blind-friendly are Amazon’s Kindle apps for the iPhone and iPad? And what about those for other operating systems?”
8 comments to “How blind-friendly are Amazon’s Kindle apps for the iPhone and iPad? And what about those for other operating systems?”
  1. I’ve briefly played with Amazon’s PC app with built-in accessibility. As I’ve mentioned in a previous comment it uses the same Tom and Samantha voices from Nuance which are used on other Kindle models with TTS. On the positive side the app has more than three options for the rate of speech which is what I’d expect even from an elementary speech package. The Kindle Keyboard only allows for three rates of speech: slow, default and faster. The default speed isn’t bad but I wish I had the option for a bit more variety. The fast setting is OK but the speech gets a tad bit clipped at times and I need to focus all of my concentration on what I’m listening to. As I’ve said the PC app does at least allow for more fine-tuning of the speed. Interestingly, the PC app allows for the reading of all books including those with TTS blocked by the publisher. Amazon’s justification for doing this is that the app is a form of assistive technology. I think they used that justification to do people a favor but I guess I don’t understand why they don’t consider the KK a form of assistive technology for those who need a.t. to assist in reading books.
    Like the TTS built into the KK the PC app works but it has the feel of beta software which isn’t quite ready for prime time use. There are two keyboard commands for adjusting speech rate: control plus and control minus. This is fine and even somewhat intuitive but one of the keys needs to be pressed on the numeric keypad and the other one needs to be pressed from the row of number keys. I really need to contact them and ask that they fix this to allow the plus and minus keys on the numpad to function. Also, like the TTS on my KK you cannot use arrow keys to navigate through your book in increments of lines, words and characters the way you can with screen reading technology with documents ranging from MS Word files to Web pages. I’m glad that I have another option for reading Kindle books but I don’t use the app as I don’t wish to be tethered to my computer every time I want to read something.

  2. I’m really glad you’re bringing this point up, Mr. Rothman. At the same time, this is much bigger than just Amazon.

    A few months back, there was a World Intellectual Property Organization meeting talking about an international treaty on exceptions to copyright for the visually impaired. you can read more about that the Reading Rights Coalition’s site and a more explicit policy-oriented take here, at Knowledge Ecology International’s site.

    If there are exceptions to copyright for TTS for the visually impaired, then Amazon will doubtless have to compete with other hardware makers who do not have a vested interest in supporting a profit center like Audible, and I think this can only be good for the visually impaired, and consumers at large.

    • @Rigel: Many thanks for enriching our discussion with that reminder of the WIPO developments. If you’re interested in doing a guest post on these matters, catch up with me at David G has already expressed interest in contributing, and I’d love to see more commenters writing for the main part of the LibraryCity blog. Meanwhile I’ll check out the links you supplied. David R

      PS My own position is that TTS should be available for all, visually impaired or not. But I’m open to publishing all viewpoints. In fact, if the Authors Guild drops by and would like to challenge what said here, I’ll give ’em space too.

  3. David G., those are wonderful specifics, and I very much hope you’ll indeed contact Amazon and tell us what the people there reveal to you. Needless to say, if you can convey your displeasure not just with the level of TTS in the PC and KK products but also with the complete absence of TTS in the Kindle Fire and Paperwhite devices–well, then, so much the better! And keep those comments coming! People are welcome and in fact encouraged to comment in the LibraryCity blog as often as they want, just so their remarks are useful and interesting. You qualify in both ways.


  4. I couldn’t agree more. I was in grad school with an amazing blind guy, and I was quite impressed with all the extra effort he had to go through in his studies. He’s now a judge.

    I also agree with the need to put pressure on Amazon. They’re certainly a bully, but as numerous instances show, they’re a bully that is hypersensitive to criticism. Stand up to them, marshall enough public attention or legal action in your favor, and they almost always back down. Amazon is mostly bad because the federal government, for reasons unknown to me, isn’t taking them on and instead, in this administration, seems to be pandering to them.

    Keep in mind that Amazon, Apple and the rest have the hardware/software infrastructure to offer better services to the sight-impaired, a much larger category than the blind. The same account that lets us buy ebooks from us could also include a tag that turns on TTS for all ebooks, not just those whose publishers agree to universal TTS. Both Amazon and Apple could make that a condition of sale. No publisher with any sense is going to give up 100 sales just because one will include TTS. And registration could be as simply as the disability parking permits states issue.

    Amazon, in particular, could make a big difference with just a little effort. The WiFi chips in their Kindles include Bluetooth support. They should , at the very least, allow users to flip pages with the two buttons on a Bluetooth mouse. That’d let them use an easily available $10 gadget rather than buy a $200+ speciality product that only works with one variety of Kindle.

    I’ve also talked with the team at Apple that deals with disability issues. Apple does offer an impressive amount of support. But as I told them, the features they design seemed to be for the super-disabled, meaning people with disabilities who can run circles around normal people. What OS X has are powerful features, but they’re not features that are easy to use. Quite a few people who need those features are like the elderly woman I met at a library. Aging had given her so many other issues in addition to seeing problems, that she didn’t have the resources to master much of what Apple offers. TTS needs to be smart enough to know what to read and not just read everything going on. That’s one reason why TTS built into a reading device can be much better than a more generic TTS built into an operating system.

  5. While I realize that David’s post concerns Amazon’s Kindle accessibility on various platforms I’ve just run across a very interesting blog entry concerning Kobo. RNIB in the UK reports that Kobo is quite accessible on IOS and has some usability on Android. Well done, Kobo. I hope that visually impaired users give this app a try and that they also contact Kobo to express their appreciation. Here’s the link.

  6. I can not believe that there is inadequate resources for text to speech on the kindle platform. In this day and age it illustrates the insensitivity to the disabled. There is really no excuse from my admittedly uneducated point of view. I am sighted and want an app that will allow me to play my kindle books while I drive. I understand this is a perk, something desirable out of convenience and yet I feel for those people who RELY on this type of technology. I have just begun to search for an ipad app that will provide this type of service. I strongly encourage Amazon to get with the program!

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