Kindle, Blind Readers – Kindle 3 for Blind Readers

Finally, the Kindle 3 has delivered on Amazon’s promise of making the Kindle accessible for blind readers. The NFB has released a statement commending Amazon for making Kindle 3 accessible to blind readers – That’s perhaps the surest sign that Kindle for Blind Readers is now a reality.

Let’s go through the various Kindle 3 features that make it good for blind and low vision readers. This post focuses mostly on Kindle 3′s accessibility features for blind readers.

Kindle 3 for Blind Readers

The Kindle 3 is an electronic book reader that lets users read books or listen to books. With the Kindle 3 Amazon has added features that make Kindle accessible for blind readers and low vision readers.

The critical features that make Kindle 3 a good choice for blind readers are -

  1. Text to Speech feature called Read to Me - This reads out books to you unless disabled by Publishers. There is a case going on to force Publishers to enable this on every book. You can also have all your personal documents read to you – that includes text files. PDFs cannot yet be read out. Text to Speech can be turned on or off by pressing the Aa Font key and then pressing ‘turn on’ next to Text-to-Speech or by pressing Shift and SYM at the same time.  
  2. Accessible Menus feature called Voice Guide - Your Kindle 3 will read out Menus to you, it’ll read out the books listed on your Kindle 3 home page, and it’ll read out book descriptions. Note that this is turned off by default and it can be turned on in the Settings Page (On Home Page press Menu, then Choose Settings, and you’ll reach the Settings Page).
  3. Super Size Fonts – Kindle 3 has 8 font sizes with the two largest ones of particular interest to blind and low vision readers as they correspond to font sizes 30 and 40 respectively.

    The Font Sizes correspond roughly to these Microsoft Word standard font sizes -

    1 = 7pt
    2 = 9pt
    3 = 11 pt
    4 = 14 pt
    5 = 17 pt
    6 = 20 pt

    Supersize Fonts:
    7 = 30 pt
    8 = 40 pt 

  4. High Contrast eInk Pearl Screen – There were concerns last year that the Kindle 2′s screen does not have enough contrast for low vision readers. The Kindle 3 screen has 50% better contrast and choosing the graphite Kindle 3 ensures the contrast is brought out more.  

Those are the four main features that make the new Kindle 3 a good choice for blind readers.

General Kindle 3 Features that Blind Kindle 3 owners will benefit from

There are a lot of Kindle 3 features you will like -

  1. Kindle 3 is only 8.7 ounces and even one-handed reading won’t tire your hands. No more holding heavy books.
  2. It’s very compact and easy to hold and carry. There’s also a soft textured back for a better grip.
  3. There’s a headphone jack so you can listen to books even in crowded or noisy surroundings. 
  4. Battery Life is up to a month when wireless is off and 10 days with wireless on. 
  5. Kindle Store has 630,000 books – You aren’t restricted to a small selection of large print editions or braille editions.
  6. Low Book Prices – 510,000 out of those 630,000 books are below $9.99.
  7. There is Text to Speech for any personal document you load (after conversion to Kindle format) and Kindle 3 supports it for text files too (though not for PDF files).
  8. You can read your books across Kindle 3, PC, Mac, iPhone, iPad, Blackberry, and Android. As far as my understanding goes iPhone and iPad have an accessibility feature calledVoiceOver and there is good accessibility software (separate from Kindle for PC app) available for the PC.
  9. Family Sharing – You can link multiple Kindles to 1 account and share books. A book can, however, only be download to 5-6 different devices (Kindles, iPhones, etc. – after downloading it to a total of 5-6 devices you can’t download it to more devices and have to call customer service).
  10. There is no computer required.

For a detailed list of Kindle 3 pros and cons please read my Kindle 3 Review.

There are a few other things that are worth knowing -

  • The Page turn buttons are on both sides and they are clearly divided/separate from the rest of the case. The Next Page button is longer and below the Previous Page button.
  • The Text to Speech voices are nothing like a real person reading a book. These are computer generated voices and are a little robot like.
  • The Kindle 3 and Kindle WiFi will automatically re-connect to a WiFi network that you have connected to in the past unless you specifically indicate not to. This is convenient as you only have to log-in the first time.
  • There are nearly 400,000 accessible books at the Open Library. Click on the little book icon at the bottom left of each book cover. This is online and not Kindle 3 related.
  • The Kindle DX 2 has even larger font sizes than the Kindle 3. However, it doesn’t yet have the Voice Guide feature and is much more expensive ($379). In comparison, Kindle 3 is $189 and Kindle WiFi is $139.

Kindle for Blind Readers – The Obvious Usability Issues

Here are a few things that will be tricky for blind readers using the Kindle 3 -

  1. Starting and stopping Text to Speech. The easiest way is to get a feel for the Shift and SYM buttons – with a little practice you can get used to where they are. After that you can start and stop Text to Speech easily.  Shift is the left-most button on the bottom row and SYM is in the second from the bottom row and the 2nd button on the left of the 5-way controller. 
  2. Turning on Voice Guide. On the main Kindle home page you’ll have to press Menu, then choose Settings (it’s the 7th button on Kindle 2, not sure on Kindle 3), and on Settings Page turn on Voice Guide (not sure what it’s position on that page is).  
  3. Figuring out which books have Text to Speech enabled. Amazon now has a ‘Text to Speech:Enabled’ or ‘Text to Speech:Disabled’ field on the Amazon product page for each Kindle book. It’s right below the price.
  4. The keyboard doesn’t have any upraised alphabets or anything of that sort. You’ll have to memorize placement of each key. Also, the alphabets are tiny and not easy to see if you have low vision.
  5. Turning wireless on and off doesn’t have a dedicated button. You’ll have to go into the menu to do this – The good thing is it’s right at the top of every menu.
  6. Not sure if the WiFi will be easy to set-up. Have no idea if the Voice Guide includes the pages for setting up WiFi.  
  7. Figuring out battery life and the time is tough as they aren’t spoken out.

From my understanding of what Amazon has written about Kindle 3 accessibility it seems that blind kindle 3 owners should be able to browse the Kindle Store and buy books. However, please confirm this as Kindle Store accessibility isn’t specifically mentioned.

Kindle for Blind Readers – Further Improvements Amazon should consider

All the points listed in the previous section on Kindle usability for Blind Readers are obvious areas to tackle.  

Had written about making the Kindle blind accessible in December 2009 and a few of those suggestions still apply -

  1. Little bumps on the page turn, home, and menu buttons – make them different for different keys. This helps even normal readers. This would have to be in Kindle 3 and Kindle DX 2.
  2. Perhaps (since it’s a big change) a keyboard that has the alphabets carved into it – some way for people to feel through the keys.
  3. An audible time function.
  4. An audible status indicator for battery life and the wireless connection.
  5. More speed options in the Read To Me feature.
  6. Improved voices in the Read To Me feature – This might not happen as it would scare Publishers into disabling the feature

It’s worth noting that Amazon has included the most critical accessibility features in Kindle 3. These make the Kindle 3 an accessible eReader and as the NFB commending Kindle 3 shows it’s appreciated. These are just further suggestions to make Kindle even better for blind readers.

All said and done the Kindle 3 is the first eReader that delivers a cheap, powerful reading solution for blind readers. There’s a 30 day return period for you to ensure you like it or you can go to Target, try out a Kindle 3, and see if its accessible enough for you.

Blind Groups sue ASU for using Kindle DX

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that two Blind Groups are suing Arizona State University for using the Kindle DX.

They have also filed complaints with federal agencies against the 5 universities using the Kindle DX in pilot projects.

Suing Universities to get better Kindle support for blind people?

This is really strange strategy. The motivation seems to be to force Amazon to add more features for blind students -

While the Kindle DX has text-to-speech technology that can read textbooks aloud, the National Federation of the Blind and American Council of the Blind said blind students cannot use the device’s menus to purchase books from Amazon.com’s Kindle store, select a book to read, activate the text-to-speech feature or use the advanced reading functions.

Well, Amazon has already said its working on these features (from the official Amazon Kindle blog) -

We’ve heard from many of our blind or vision impaired customers who are excited about Kindle 2’s text to speech technology.  Some of these customers have asked that we make Kindle even easier for them by adding navigation accessible to the blind.  We want to let those customers know that this is something we are working on and we look forward to making it available in the future. 
–The Amazon Kindle Team

Perhaps the Blind group can add in Folder Support to their law suit?

Will suing universities to get Kindle support for the blind work?

Apparently, its a well tested strategy  -

Last fall, the Massachusetts attorney general’s office and the National Federation of the Blind reached an agreement with Apple Inc. (AAPL) under which the consumer-electronics giant agreed to make its iTunes service accessible to the blind.

The same strategy was also leveraged to get Target to make its website accessible to the blind.

There’s something called the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. It might be this section -

Section 504 states that “no qualified individual with a disability in the United States shall be excluded from, denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under” any program or activity that either receives Federal financial assistance …

Will Amazon add extended support for the blind in Kindles soon?

I have no way of knowing. It does seem like they might not have a choice if they want Kindles to be used in educational institutions.

It’s actually going to help Amazon in the long run because the Kindle DX will end up being a very compelling device for blind and low vision people.

Amazon making Read To Me optional was a great move

The Reading Rights Coalition want their Kindle 2 Read To Me ability back and are going after the Author’s Guild with a vengeance. 

There was an actual physical march in New York today. Here are some photos from Flickr and people tweeting about it.

(BTW, if twitter worked out a system for authority and displayed results from authority sources alongside latest tweets from everyone, they’d have a somewhat compelling search engine).

You can support the stand the RRC is taking by signing their online petition.

Amazon got the best possible outcome

  1. If Amazon had kept Read To Me, they’d be fighting a court case against the Author’s Guild.
  2. If Amazon had turned off Read To Me, the Reading Rights Coalition would be protesting at Amazon’s offices in Seattle, asking people to boycott Amazon.com, and in general creating a PR nightmare.  

By leaving the option in the hands of the Authors and Publishers they are making the Author’s Guild responsible, who in turn are completely messing it up.  

Author’s Guild is making things worse for themselves

Denying disabled people a feature that lets them actually access books is bad enough. The Author’s Guild are showing a lack of compassion and are really making things bad for themselves  -

  1. They came up with a hare-brained idea where disabled people could ‘prove’ their disability and then use the Read To Me feature.
  2. They’re issuing careless statements -

    The guild issued a statement to the Associated Press, saying that the protest was “unfortunate and unnecessary.”

An interesting take is from Robert Martinengo on his Accessible Publishing blog where he puts forth the argument that the RRC should work with the Author’s Guild.  

Why do People get so mad about DRM and other measures to protect copyright?

My guess is that strongly enforced DRM and copyright protection measures is not only restrictive it also labels customers as potential thieves and considers them guilty even in the absence of evidence of any sort.

DRM is basically inconveniencing every single customer just to prevent abuse by the 5% of customers that are ‘bad customers’. In some cases (like the current Read To Me case) protecting rights aggressively gets perceived, perhaps justifiably so, as excessive greed.

Closing Thoughts

 By leaving the issue in the court of public opinion Amazon are creating the highest probability chance that the Read To Me feature survives and thrives.

Amazon fighting the case themselves would have taken up years (look at what happened with Google and Google Books – it’s still going on). Worse, there was a chance that Amazon would’ve lost and set a precedent that would have closed off  Read To Me AND every other similar feature in the future.

Kudos to Amazon for taking a great route with the Kindle 2′s Read To Me feature. It was the best route to ensure the feature survives.

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