Improving the accessibility of e-readers for the blind community

Ahead of our next meeting, Adrienne Sinclair Chalmers, a member of the CPG who is herself visually impaired, shares her thoughts on developments in the US which could affect the accessibility of Kindle and Sony e-readers for blind consumers:

I have previously raised at the CPG the question of the accessibility of Kindle devices and the Kindle IOS app. The CPG were supportive of an attempt to improve this.

The situation was then that there was only one Kindle device which was partially accessible to visually impaired people who relied on speech output. Many of the titles available to Kindle devices had the text to speech function disabled and it was not possible to cary out many of the functions of the device unless you could read the screen yourself. Amazon had also made Apple disable the inbuilt Voiceover IOS screenreader on the IOS Kindle app.

There were also problems for people using PCs with any screenreader other than Jaws. Jaws is a Windows screenreader which costs several hundred pounds, unlike Voiceover, which is free on both IOS and OSX. There are also free screenreaders to be had for PCs.

In May, Amazon did a huge volte face and announced, completely out of the blue, that it had allowed Voiceover to be enabled on its IOS app and, thus, blind people with iPhones and iPads could use their built-in screenreaders to access all Kindle titles, not just the ones which had had text to speech enabled.

It was a bit of a mystery to the blind community as to why Amazon had had this sudden change of heart. They had stalwartly refused to do anything about this, despite various court actions being raised and being asked to account for themselves by the likes of the In Touch BBC Radio 4 programme. Nevertheless, there was a huge amount of celebration at suddenly having access to over 1.5 million books.

I think we may now know why this change was effected. Recent legislation in the United States had stated that various communication devices must be made accessible. Now we hear that both Amazon and Sony have sought a waiver for their e-book readers from the Federal Communications Commission.

I understand that part of Amazon’s submission to the FCC is that they do not need to make their Kindle devices accessible, because they have allowed Apple to enable  Voiceover on iPhones and iPads.

Now, obviously, there are a couple of points to be taken into consideration here. Firstly, love my accessible iDevices as I do, even I can’t deny Kindle devices are a whole lot cheaper than an iPad. Secondly, if this has, as many blind people now suspect, been a cynical move by Amazon to further their application for a waiver, will they suddenly cease to support Voiceover on the next Kindle IOS upgrade, depending on what the FCC decides?

Although this is clearly a matter to do with US legislation, what is decided by the FCC will affect blind people across the whole world. I would hope that the CPG would consider making some representation to relevant parties on this issue.


About mcclarity

External Relations Manager at Ofcom Scotland. Support for Scottish Parliament Cross Party Group on Digital Participation
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