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

Text to speech is AWOL from Amazon’s beautiful Paperwhite Kindles, 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 Bezos 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.

Editor’s Note: The above article is Creative Commons-licensed content from LibraryCity.org.

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

  1. 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.

  2. The move to touch screens is also not very “blind-friendly.” I wish they had an option similar to the format of the $69 Kindle WITH TTS. The Kindle Keyboard has too many buttons for my blind mother to navigate, even when I start TTS for her.

  3. More power to you, David! Before the advent of e-reading, the visually impaired were restricted to those books issued in large print, or to audio books. The Royal National Institute for the Blind in the UK had (and maybe has still) a scheme whereby skilled — and generous — actors created audiobooks for RNIB members, royalty free because authors waived their rights for these productions. I was asked for such rights to one of my books and gladly signed up. But new technology should consign all of that to the past: why on earth shouldn’t the blind or partially-sighted be able to read any digital text they please? The extra cost, per device, of TTS is not large, and if TTS cuts into audiobook profits, so be it. And the new voices are very impressive — I checked out the “Amy” voice and it’s getting close to human speech.

    Oh, and TTS is very handy for sighted writers checking their own text for typos!

  4. I don’t agree at all that Amazon is a bully, but would still like to see blind-friendly readers remain on sale.
    In all fairness, they are now still selling a non-touch version with TTS, so as long as they have that, there is an option for visually impaired. It would not make any sense to put TTS on the Paperwhite for accessibility purposes, as the selling points of the Paperwhite are higher contrast, higher screen resolution, light – all things that are irrelevant to visually impaired customers.

  5. How about some friendliness from the blind. Amazon has been the only company to implement text to speech in an ereader, updating it to the operating system of the Kindle keyboard, and they get targeted for criticism because they didn’t do enough. B&N, Kobo, and Sony don’t get criticized. Meanwhile, look only through Marxist glasses at the innovation that Amazon is bringing by connecting Audible books with Kindle books. Human read books are FAR easier to understand than machine read. But, you know, all they want to do is make a profit, so be against it.

  6. It’s disingenuous to say that TTS isn’t available to the blind. If you have a reader or a computer that does TTS, and almost all do, then the Library of Congress’ exemptions to copyright allows the blind reader to strip the DRM to allow TTS. Many publishers offer DRM free versions of their books for that reason.

    Here’s a link to the information on the Library of Congress’ decision on TTS.

    http://mbyerly.blogspot.com/2010/08/new-exception-to-ebook-copyright.html

    Neither Authors Guild, the publishers, nor the writers are being evil about not allowing TTS in books. It’s a question of undefined rights. TTS has not been defined as an audio right, an ebook right, or a right on its own.

    Places like Amazon can’t say that they have the legal right to allow TTS on any book, that’s why they didn’t fight the Authors Guild lawsuit on the matter. Most authors are afraid to allow TTS because they may be destroying their audio book or ebook rights without reimbursement. Publishers are staying away from the issue because most book contracts don’t spell out this right so they don’t wish massive lawsuits from their authors.

    To add an addenda about TTS to contracts of all their authors, most publishers would have to spend thousands if not hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal and office expenses.

    For any of the parties involved, actually taking this issue to court to settle on what kind of right TTS is would be appallingly expensive.

    Meanwhile, TTS doesn’t promise any kind of financial reward for any of the parties so things remain in limbo.

    If anyone would like a more complete explanation of this problem, I have several articles on the subject which have some decent reference and resource links to various law sites, etc.

    http://mbyerly.blogspot.com/2009/02/authors-guild-versus-amazon-kindle-2.html

    http://mbyerly.blogspot.com/2009/02/lawsuits-and-authors-book-rights.html

    http://mbyerly.blogspot.com/2009/03/amazon-backs-down-on-kindle-text-to.html

  7. @Marilyn: While TTS is available to the blind through special services, this isn’t a substitute for the ability to turn an “ordinary” e-book into a voice-enabled one. The special services don’t immediately pick up every book. And many blind people lack the technical skills to deDRM their books to allow TTS. As for TTS needing to be considered a special right, well, lawyers are still debating that one. Meanwhile I am pleased that a few years ago you acknowledged the harm to the blind and others from TTS blocking: “As things stand now, TTS will be cut off on most books available for the Kindle, and that will hurt the visually impaired.” Not sure that “most” applies, given the number of independently published books, but whether it does or doesn’t, the Authors Guild should be ashamed of itself.

    @Doug Steven: The point here is that Amazon TOOK AWAY existing capabilities. Furthermore, *if* TTS is that expensive, why can’t Amazon offer it as an extra-cost option in the Paperwhites? And do the same for additional voices? Like you I’m a capitalist, and I’d like Jeff Bezos in this instance to be a better one than he is now.

  8. David, I don’t agree with everything the Authors Guild does, and I’m not a member, but they were very right to fight Amazon on the TTS issue.

    Like the 600 pound gorilla that it is, Amazon decided it wanted TTS so it took it without a line in any contract between it and the publishers or between the publishers and authors that said TTS was available. Nor did they offer extra payment to anyone. It was blatant theft they believed they could get away with.

    Amazon was very wrong to do this in the same way that publishers were wrong to say digital rights were included with print rights in the early days of digital publishing.

    TTS has very little value as a right, but a dozen years ago, digital rights had very little value, and we both know how that has changed.

    I’ve had TTS via my Macs for over fifteen years, and the quality of the voices has changed remarkably so I wouldn’t be surprised to see TTS become a much more valuable right. One of my publishers flirted with the idea of using advanced TTS with different voices for different characters and narrative to create ebooks, but he ran afoul of the TTS issue and decided not to.

    And, as I said, the Library of Congress’ copyright exemption of DRM removal allows a blind person or someone or some organization for the blind to remove DRM allowing for TTS. If someone who is blind can’t do this, he can certainly find someone who can if the book is important enough for him to read. Many libraries have a specialist who will do this. Students and specialized readers have this done all the time for textbooks and research.

    The few who cannot can’t be used as an excuse to allow Amazon and its ilk to rip off thousands of authors and publishers.

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