An Accessibility Review of the Amazon Kindle 3
By Ricky Enger
With contributions from Serotalk Staff
The Serotalk team was quite excited to read that Amazon would be releasing the third generation of its popular Kindle EReader, and this time the device would boast several accessibility enhancements. As soon as the unit was available, we purchased one from Amazon and began the process of testing it in-house. The unit we chose had both wifi and 3G, and during our testing we used version 3.01 of the Kindle firmware and, a bit later, version 3.02. We noticed no appreciable difference between the two firmware versions in terms of accessibility improvements. In this review, we will do our best to provide an accurate picture of what blind users can expect when using the Kindle 3. In addition, with this post we aim to give feedback to the Amazon developers for creating an even better and more accessible Kindle user experience. While we will give general descriptions of how to use the Kindle in this document, we strongly recommend that you read the User’s Guide if you’d like more in-depth instructions.
Using the Kindle for The First Time
If you’ve purchased your Kindle using your Amazon account, the unit will come already registered to you, and the name on your Amazon account will be displayed on the screen. However, it will not talk when you first turn it on. The accessibility on the Kindle consists of two features: “voice guide” and text-to-speech”. The “voice guide” feature is what you will use to navigate menus and materials on the device, and there is currently no way to enable this feature without sighted help. To enable “voice guide”, press the menu button which is just above the 5-way navigation control, choose settings, and turn on “voice guide”. Once this feature is on, it will remain activated even when you restart your Kindle. While we’re glad to see this feature included, we’d like to see a way for a blind person to turn it on independently. This could easily be done by assigning a keyboard shortcut, allowing it to be toggled at will. Other keyboard shortcuts already exist for doing things like adding bookmarks, posting to social networks and so on, and this could easily be added in a firmware update.
There are thousands of text and audio books, periodicals and blogs which can be read with your Kindle. You can transfer your personal documents, as well as Audible content and MP3 music to your device directly from your computer. The Kindle appears as a removable drive in Windows Explorer, allowing you to copy content from your computer. When you’d like to purchase new content, there are two ways for Kindle users to do this. Users can shop in the Kindle store from their computer, or directly from the device itself. Unfortunately, only one of these methods is accessible for blind users at this time. Neither the Kindle Store nor the web browser on the device is accessible. You’ll need to purchase any items you’d like to read using your computer, and those items will then be delivered wirelessly to your Kindle. When searching for text content in the Kindle store, you’ll want to be sure and read the description of the content you hope to purchase. The description indicates whether the content you’ve selected allows the use of text-to-speech or not. If you purchase content with the text-to-speech option disabled by request of the publisher, you’ll be unable to read it accessibly on your device.
Navigating and Reading Content
As mentioned above, there are several types of content which can be read with the Kindle. These include, but are not limited to, books, newspapers and magazines, blogs, and Audible content. The Kindle’s text-to-speech feature is used to read text content aloud using the Samantha or Tom voice from Nuance. The text-to-speech settings on the device allow you to switch between male and female voices, and you can also choose from 3 speed settings: slower, default, and faster. We found that the default speed sounded most natural for reading, and though the “faster” setting did give us the speed we were hoping for, the speech sounded choppy and uncomfortable to listen to. However, this is not a function of the device, but rather the text-to-speech engine itself.
To read a book on the Kindle, use the 5-way navigation controller to move through the content displayed on your kindle’s home screen. Note that you can always push the home button from anywhere to take you to this screen. The Page-up and page-down keys can be used to move through pages on the home screen. “Voice Guide” will announce the number of pages present on the home screen, as well as the page you’re currently on. Once you’ve found the book you’d like to read, press the center of the 5-way navigation controller. Now, the book is open, and you’ll hear its title as well as a percentage indicator of where you are in the book. In order to begin reading the book though, you’ll need to enable text-to-speech. Do this by pressing the text key, just to the right of the space bar, and choosing “text-to-speech”: “turn on”, from the menu. The book will immediately begin reading from the beginning, or from the last place you stopped. To pause or resume speech, press the space bar.
At this time, navigation within a text is not possible. You cannot use the page-up or page-down buttons to scroll through text, even if text-to-speech is paused. You also cannot move through the text using the 5-way navigation controller. When text-to-speech is off, there are numerous ways to navigate within a book. Users can press the page-up and page-down keys to scroll through text, the 5-way navigation controller for more fine-grained scrolling, or the “go to” option, accessed by pressing the menu key, to choose a chapter or section. Unfortunately, the chapters and sections are not spoken aloud by “voice guide” if you attempt to use the “go to” option, and this option does not appear at all once text-to-speech has been enabled. Also, there is no spoken feedback when scrolling through the document if text-to-speech is off, so none of these options for navigation are available to the blind user. This means that although you can read a book on the device, it is not ideal for materials such as textbooks, Bibles, or even the Kindle user’s guide, where you may want to jump to specific portions of the text rather than reading it straight through.
Newspapers and Periodicals
As mentioned above, the Kindle can provide access to thousands of newspapers and magazines, and this is where the device really shines, both for the blind and sighted user. When subscribing to these types of materials, the latest issue will automatically be delivered wirelessly to your Kindle as soon as the content becomes available. As with books, you may choose the periodical you’d like to read by navigating to it from the home screen. Unlike books, however, you have a bit more control when navigating this type of content. When you’ve chosen the periodical you’d like to read, “voice guide” will announce the option to view sections list. Press the center of the 5-way navigation controller to do this. Here, you’ll see a list of sections in the periodical which you can navigate using up or down arrows on the 5-way navigation controller. When you find a section of interest to you, press the right arrow to hear how many articles are in the section, and press the center of the navigation controller to be taken to the list of articles itself. Navigate the articles with the up and down arrows, and press the center button on the article of your choice. Unlike the home screen, where “voice guide” speaks the number of pages that the content list takes up, navigating the article list within a periodical only gives the number of articles in a particular section, but not the number of pages that the list covers. This means that if, for example, you have a section containing 12 articles and you view the list of articles in that section, you may be initially confused because you only see titles for the first two articles in the list. Pressing your page-up and page-down keys will allow you to navigate through the remainder of the articles in the list, but there is no indication of when you have reached the beginning or end of the list.
Once you’ve opened an article by selecting it with the center button, you’ll need to turn text-to-speech on to begin reading it. Note that text-to-speech preferences for any content you read are not saved, meaning that you will need to enable text to speech for each bit of content you open, each time you open it. As previously described in the section on reading books, it is not possible to scroll through text once text-to-speech has been enabled. In addition, you cannot navigate to and activate any links present in the periodical. To be able to do this, navigation within documents while text-to-speech is on would need to be supported, and the Kindle browser itself would need to be accessible. We very much hope to see both these enhancements in a future release.
Despite these issues, we found reading periodicals on the Kindle a very pleasant experience. In fact, we found reading this type of material on the Kindle preferable to reading it in the browser. Since the interface for navigating through sections and articles was quite intuitive, and we didn’t have to skip past navigation links or advertisements as we would in a browser, we were able to read periodicals very efficiently with the Kindle. We also liked the ability to clip an article whose text could later be shared with others. We couldn’t clip particular passages since highlighting and selecting is not supported when text-to-speech is on, but clipping the article in its entirety was easy. This is done by selecting and opening the article, and without enabling text-to-speech, pressing the menu button and choosing “clip article”.
The Kindle supports reading of Audible content which can be purchased directly from the Kindle store and downloaded over wifi, or transferred from the PC when the Kindle is connected via USB. As with other types of content, you may select the Audible book you’d like to read from the home screen. After you’ve pressed the center button on the 5-way navigation controller, the book opens, announcing your current position and the remaining time in the file. To play or pause, press the space bar. Once the book is playing, you can use the left and right arrows on the 5-way navigation controller to view options, which include the ability to move to beginning, move backward and forward 30 seconds, and move to previous or next section.
While we believe that an enhancement for adjusting playback speed would be a useful feature for blind and sighted users alike, there are no accessibility concerns with the current implementation of audiobook playback.
Adding Notes and Highlights
One of the best things about reading digital books on the Kindle is the ability to make notes to yourself about a section in a book, or highlight a particular passage that you find especially important. This is quite useful when viewing study guides, religious texts, or even a book club selection you’re reading and discussing with others. For the sighted user, Kindle makes it possible to highlight certain passages which you can later revisit, and you can even share these passages on social networks like Twitter or Facebook. For the blind user, however, using this feature is not supported. While you can add a note to a book, and later view it accessibly with your Kindle, you cannot associate that note with a particular spot in the book. Without the ability to view the note in its proper context in the book, this feature is not at all useful at present. Additionally, linking your social network accounts with your Kindle is not accessible, so the blind user cannot participate in sharing information with others.
Searching With the Kindle
The Kindle allows you to search the materials on your device, two preloaded dictionaries, and even the Kindle store, using the built-in qwerty keyboard. We were very pleased to note that this feature is quite usable by a blind person, at least when searching through content on the device. While we would prefer an option for keys to be echoed as they are pressed, it was still possible for us to accurately type search terms without this.
There are several ways to search for content, but the easiest way we’ve found is to simply begin typing your word or phrase while on the home screen, and pressing the center button to submit the search query. You’ll be presented with a list of content containing your search terms, and the number of times the search term occurs within each piece of content. Select the piece of content you want by navigating to it and pressing the center button, where you’ll be presented with a list of passages within the content that contain your search terms. A couple of sentences of the passage are read by “voice guide”, which makes it very easy to determine if you’ve found the passage you wanted. You can select your passage with the center key, and the content will open with the cursor positioned on the sentence in the passage containing your search terms. You’ll still need to enable text-to-speech to begin reading your content.
While searching content on the device works well, we were very disappointed when searching either of the dictionaries included by default with the Kindle. Yes, we could find the terms we searched for, but neither of the dictionaries included in the device allow the use of text-to-speech. Since Amazon certainly has a say in which content is preloaded on the Kindle, it was disheartening to see that no effort was made to include a dictionary usable by blind consumers. We want to see this rectified in a future release, whether through negotiations with publishers to allow text-to-speech to be used with their books, or through selecting dictionaries which don’t have text-to-speech restrictions.
The Bottom Line
The Kindle has made quite significant improvements to its accessibility since text-to-speech was first introduced on the second-generation unit. We are very hopeful that Amazon will continue its commitment to accessibility with each new firmware revision of the current hardware. As things stand, this unit makes an excellent choice for reading newspapers, magazines, blogs and audiobooks. With that said, there are some major changes which must be made before this device can truly take its rightful place in the homes and classrooms of blind consumers. While some of these changes must happen on the Kindle itself, there are broader concerns. Namely, even when the Kindle becomes fully accessible, a disturbing number of authors and publishers do not allow the use of text-to-speech with their materials. This was brought about when Amazon, under pressure from the Authors Guild, allowed authors and publishers to disable text-to-speech in their materials if they wished. In negociations with a number of disability groups, including the National Federation of The Blind, the Authors guild proposed two solutions for allowing text-to-speech to be used by the blind and print-disabled community. One suggestion was that the right to use text-to-speech should cost the consumer extra money, and this suggestion was summarily dismissed. The other proposed solution was a registration service, wherein a person would prove their print disability in order to gain access to text-to-speech in all published materials. This system was deemed burdensome by the coalition of disability groups involved in the negociations and was not implemented. We don’t know if the system was rejected because of privacy concerns surrounding the need to disclose disability, concerns that certain disability groups would be excluded by the proposed system, or some combination of the two. You can read the Reading Rights Coalition’s description of the issue, and the Authors Guild’s response to get a better idea of the big picture. Both the items above were posted in April 2009, and sadly there have been no significant changes in the state of things since that time. With the major improvements we’ve already seen in the accessibility of the Kindle itself, it’s more important than ever that we advocate for full accessibility to its content as well. For a start, you can sign the petition to allow everyone access to ebooks. You can contact the Authors Guild directly with your concerns. You can become involved with the Reading Rights Coalition. You can contact publishers and authors who have chosen to disable text-to-speech in their Kindle ebooks, and share in your own words how that decision affects you directly.
Regarding accessibility of the Kindle itself, here are the five essential updates we’d like to see in the next firmware release.
ü Ability to turn on Voice Guide independently.
ü Implementation of universal text-to-speech setting, eliminating the need to turn on text-to-speech for each piece of content.
ü Ability to navigate and select text within a book.
ü Ability to highlight or make notes on specific passages in a book.
ü Ability to browse the Kindle store and purchase items directly from the device.
With these changes, we strongly believe that the Kindle will become an invaluable tool in the hands of blind students everywhere, and will be equally appreciated by those who want the freedom to purchase and read a good book, no matter where they are. These changes cannot happen though without sincere and constructive feedback from the blind community. It is not enough to say we want a device to be accessible. We must be actively involved in making that accessibility take shape. Whether you choose to express your support for Amazon’s accessibility efforts by purchasing the Kindle now or simply by sharing your appreciation for the progress so far, let your voice be heard. Send your feedback, suggestions, and ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org. Don’t just wait for accessibility to happen; be an active participant in making it happen.