Kindle Fire: Down in Flames
By Ricky Enger
With Contributions from SeroTalk Staff
The SeroTalk team had a recorded discussion about our thoughts on Amazon and its newest Kindle devices. This post is not an exact transcript of that session, but it is an attempt to collect the views expressed in that conversation and capture them in written form. There are points covered in that discussion that aren’t covered here and vice versa, so if you like, you can listen to the audio in addition to reading this post.
It was just over a year ago when we posted an accessibility review of the Amazon Kindle 3. The accessibility features on the unit were added primarily as a result of legal action by the NFB and ACB against Arizona State University, who used the Kindle DX in a pilot project to test the viability of ebook readers in the classroom. While we weren’t happy that it required legal action for Amazon to sit up and take notice of the importance of accessibility, we were excited that Amazon had at least taken a step in the right direction.. Our review concluded that the Kindle 3 was certainly usable as a reading device, but still needed some work in order to be considered a viable solution for students and professionals. In the review, we gave specific issues for Amazon to improve upon to make the unit truly accessible. At that time, we had very high hopes. We encouraged the community to applaud Amazon’s accessibility efforts and to support the initiative through any means possible, including purchasing Kindle units and providing constructive feedback to the design team. We were optimistic that by showing our appreciation for Amazon’s efforts and giving useful advice regarding enhancements,we were taking the first step toward a bright, shiny, accessible future. It’s a year later, so where are we now? What improvements has Amazon made to further its initial attempt at accessibility?
A rundown of the New Kindle Devices
On September 28, Amazon announced 4 basic Kindle devices. There are a few different configurations for each device, such as 3g, ad-supported and so on, but we’ll concentrate on the base models. The first model, simply called The Kindle, retails for $79, and the unit appears to have no accessibility features. With that said, there is no speaker on the unit so implementing text-to-speech would be impossible. The next device, the $99 Kindle Touch, does have read-aloud capability but there is no mention of the voice guide system which makes navigating menus on the device possible for a blind person. Still, it may be usable by those with other print disabilities. The Kindle Keyboard, also $99, is a rebranded version of the Kindle 3. To our knowledge, there have been no accessibility improvements on this unit. Last, there is the Kindle Fire. This is an Android-based tablet device retailing for $199. Though no one will have hands-on experience with the unit until its release on November 21, there has been no mention of accessibility on the unit so it’s pretty safe to assume there is none. This is despite the fact that the Android platform does have some accessibility, and a large number of blind people use it productively on mobile devices.
Discontent with Content
For some of us, being denied the opportunity to use the Kindle hardware is a big disappointment. We like the process of getting a brand-new gadget in hand and exploring its capabilities. However, it seems that for the majority of us, the content is what we truly care about. We want the chance to buy an ebook the day of its release, and read it accessibly on the device of our choosing. We want the ability to make notes on a passage in a book and later review those notes while studying for an exam. And it’s not just about books. Amazon offers its Prime members access to streaming music, movies and television shows on demand, and this service is growing at an impressive rate. So what’s the problem? Not only is the content unavailable to a blind person on the Kindle Fire, but it it can’t be consumed accessibly on any device. Amazon made a patronizing attempt at accessibility for Kindle books on the PC by providing a piece of software with read-aloud capability. However, it failed to take in to account that blind and print-disabled people already have assistive technology which does far more than reading a book aloud. No consideration was given to the deaf/blind population and the need to use Braille to access material. No consideration was given to the student who needs to be able to review the spelling of complex words or proper names, neither of which can be done by simply listening to the words spoken aloud. And when it comes to other content, no consideration was given to the thousands of blind Amazon prime members who want to be able to enjoy streaming music and video on demand, just like everyone else.
The “Why?” of Accessibility
We believe that sometimes businesses don’t build accessibility in to their products for the simple reason that they don’t know how to do so. With these businesses, all they need is to be educated about what accessibility means, and to be given some guidance on how to implement it. With Amazon, the decision not to implement accessibility has absolutely nothing to do with a lack of information. The company has consistently received feedback from blind users about what could be improved on their reading devices to make them fully accessible. They have received feedback from iOS users requesting that the Kindle app be made accessible, and Apple provides very detailed development guidelines and information on how this can be accomplished. They have received feedback from users who want accessible content on their Android devices, and while the guidelines for accessibility on this platform aren’t as straightforward, they do still exist. They have received feedback about the inability to use their streaming video services or cloud player with a screen reader, along with pointers on how to make the services more accessible.
Still, though they have been made aware of the problem and they have access to the tools needed to solve it, they have not taken any steps to do so. Ok, that’s not entirely accurate. Amazon has made a small stab at becoming more accessibility-minded. The company posted a job opening for a program manager with experience in accessibility. Nice move, or at least it would’ve been a year ago when the new product designs were just getting under way. Instead, the job was posted just 6 days before the release of the new devices. Was the decision to advertise for the position made because of a genuine concern about accessibility? We doubt it. We think it’s far more likely that Amazon didn’t want to be called on the carpet publicly for its behavior, and so decided to make a preemptive move to try and convince the gullible among us that it truly has our interests at heart. If Amazon cared a thing about accessibility, the company would understand the importance of incorporating it from the ground up, not bolting on half-baked solutions after the fact in order to appease the legal beagles.
And why should Amazon care about accessibility? Is it because it’s the right thing to do? Is it because blind and print-disabled people deserve access, just like everyone else? Is it because universal accessibility ultimately benefits everyone? Sorry, but no. All those things are true, of course, but they aren’t compelling reasons for Amazon. While individuals who work for the company may be empathetic, the corporation itself is an unfeeling entity whose primary goal is to make money. Anything that furthers that goal is good, and anything which appears to take time and energy away from that pursuit is considered a bad thing. From Amazon’s perspective, the blind community is not seen as a significant market share. At best, we’re considered a time-consuming and expensive legal liability. This has to change. Until it does, lawsuits will continue to be filed against Amazon, and the corporation will continue to do the bare minimum to settle the dispute and satisfy the legal requirements. That, in our minds, is not progress.
The Bottom Line
That’s what it’s all about … the bottom line. Amazon can safely continue to ignore us, unless the company sees a direct effect on revenue that can clearly be traced to its failure to implement accessibility. So how do we make that happen? The first step is to stop believing those who make statements like: “only legal action can solve this problem.” Or how about this one? “The blind community isn’t big enough, or significant enough to matter.” Where has this attitude come from anyway, considering that there are an estimated 180 million legally blind people worldwide, 35 million of whom are totally blind? Granted, all these people don’t have Amazon but a significant percentage of them do. Why have we become convinced that we are a tiny population who cannot effect change? It just isn’t true. Let’s not make the mistake of thinking that the blind community is only as large as the number of people who follow us on social networking sites. Let’s not make the mistake of believing that accessibility is only a blindness-related concern, and that no one else is affected. And let’s not assume just because we advocated for accessibility and were rejected by an unfeeling corporate entity, that the same thing will happen when we bring our cause to empathetic individuals. Corporations may not care, but people do. And they don’t have to be members of the blind community to understand the situation. Amazon can safely ignore one, or two, or three customers who boycott their services, but what happens when thousands, or millions do? You may be only one person, but you’re a person with a voice. So how can you use it? Here are just a few suggestions, and we would welcome yours as well.
You can read the blog describing the concept of the Kindle fire sale, and visit the web site later created for the purpose of organizing it. You can approach your local newspaper and let the public know how Amazon’s business decisions affect an entire community of paying consumers. You can cancel your Amazon prime membership, citing lack of accessibility as your reason. You can approach content creators and explain that you can’t make use of their content when it is provided through Amazon. You can approach your school system or university and explain how Amazon’s lack of accessibility continues to affect disabled students. You can contact your favorite tech enthusiasts like members of the TWiT Network, CNET Podcast Network, or In To Tomorrow just to name a few, and broadcast your views on mainstream podcasts. You can share this post, and others like it, with people who will make a business case for accessibility right alongside you. You can share your comments on this blog so that anyone who reads it, including Amazon themselves, will understand that it isn’t just a small group of people who care about the issue. Oh, and let’s not forget, you can contact Amazon directly. You can do so by phone at (800) 201-7575, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Or, you can always sit back and wait for someone else to make your world accessible, in which case you’ll be waiting a very long time. In the initial Kindle review, we closed with a statement that is still particularly apt. Don’t just wait for accessibility to happen. Be an active participant in making it happen.