Long gone are the days when blind people were limited to a few selections made available in special formats designed for their use exclusively. eBooks have given blind people access to more reading material than ever. It wasn’t so long ago that we would be out of the loop as friends, family members and colleagues talked about that best seller they were reading. We would have to wait and see first of all whether it would be available in an accessible format, and then, how long it would take. Now, we can read that best seller at the same time as everyone else. In terms of increasing our social participation, and of course our knowledge, the eBook revolution has been a game changer.
Assuming funding is available so a blind person can get their hands on the hardware, eBooks can be read with the aid of a refreshable Braille display. Looks like rumours of Braille’s death were seriously exaggerated, eh? Braille displays have been dropping in price in dollar terms since 2004, and when you factor inflation into account, the real cost of Braille displays have plummeted. I’d like to see some technology come along that makes even greater price reduction possible, but there has been substantial progress, clearly debunking the often stated view that assistive technology companies never lower their prices.
As is the case with a number of technologies used by the sighted, we were consuming eBooks long before sighted people did. With note taking devices like the VersaBraille released in the early 1980’s, the KeyNote in 1986, and then the Braille’n’Speak in 1987, we’ve been using portable devices to read books for a very long time. Then the rest of the world caught up.
For a while, access to these mainstream formats was problematic, but we’ve been consuming eBooks through iBooks and a number of other publishers for some years. However, frustratingly, the big player in this market, Amazon, have lagged behind. For some time, they’ve made available a PC-based reader that speaks, but it meets neither market need nor market expectations. It does not support refreshable Braille, nor can we find out how a word is spelled, and perform a range of other functions that are essential for study.
Accessibility on Kindle hardware is either non-existent or woefully inadequate, and until yesterday, any mobile app was unusable. This is a big deal, because any US Government institution, or organisation receiving Government funding, should not be buying inaccessible products. It was this that ultimately brought Apple, who in recent years have done revolutionary, exemplary work, to the accessibility table. The free market needs checks and balances, and in this case they’ve worked well.
Finally, Amazon has taken a giant step in the right direction, albeit just a first step. The latest version of the Kindle app for iOS is accessible. Perhaps some might argue it is a little unconventional, and there are one or two rough edges, but the fact remains, blind people can now purchase, read, and fully interact with Kindle books on a mobile device. It represents a significant day in our quest for equality and the right to read.
While some are reporting some sluggishness with refreshable Braille, I am not seeing this myself.
obviously Amazon have an excellent PR department, and when they issue a release, it goes far and wide. It’s been interesting to read some of the mainstream media coverage of this. Here are just a few.
Beta News offers us a little more commentary, making it clear that while representing progress, there is more to be done.
And the one that has me scratching my head and saying, “oh dear, dear dear” is a piece from Lifehacker, whose articles I usually find informative. In the Lifehacker article, they talk about the voice of Siri reading books to blind people, who have to scroll down the screen one line at a time.
I think the authors of this article understand the difference between VoiceOver, Apple’s built-in screen reader for the blind, and Siri, Apple’s digital assistant that takes voice input and speaks back. The only things the two software services have in common are that they both run on iOS and they both make use of the same text to speech engine. Yet since Siri’s introduction, most sighted people I meet seem to think that I have an iPhone because Siri enables me to use it. It’s therefore disappointing to see Lifehacker dumbing the subject down in this way.
While you may be thinking, “who cares, Lifehacker is a mainstream publication and blind people aren’t the target market”, a good number of iOS developers read Lifehacker, and a good number still don’t seem to know that VoiceOver even exists.
Still, there are many positives out of what’s happened with Amazon. Mainstream publications have spread the word that blind people are using iOS devices, and most important of all, we have access to more books than any blind person has had before. This is a good beginning, but it is just that, a beginning. Blind people should no more be locked into a particular platform than sighted people. Kindle books need to be accessible on all platforms. Let’s hope we see this good news continuing with more roll-outs in short order.
How’s the Kindle app going for you? Has it given you access to titles you really wanted to read before, but couldn’t? How is the performance?