Kindle Accessibility Review: How Far Has Amazon Opened the Door to the Blind?

By guest writer Larry Wanger.

The Kindle is an electronic book reading device produced by Amazon that provides access to hundreds of thousands of in-copyright books and well over a million more that are either out of print or in the public domain. In other words, it’s pretty safe to say that if it’s not available on the Kindle it’s not available in e-book format.

The question we must ask is, “how effectively does the new Kindle 3 make the books in this vast library accessible to blind readers”?

While it is clear that Amazon has taken some steps in the right direction to make the new book reader accessible, this review will point out significant areas where there’s a great deal of work to be done in order for the company to claim it sells a truly accessible product.

The Pros:

  • A device with access to over 600,000 books and over a million more out of copyright.
  • Light weight, small and very portable.
  • Outstanding battery life.
  • Works for the casual reader who doesn’t expect more than simply being able to read a book.

The Cons:

  • Speech output that is less than stellar.
  • There may be over 600,000 books but text to speech doesn’t work on all of them.
  • The new Kindle just won’t fit the bill for students, researchers or serious readers who demand a lot in terms of navigation and accessibility.

Those who know me are aware that I tend to be an early adopter. If a new device or technology hits the market and if it promises accessibility I find myself wishing for it. So, in July when Amazon began taking orders for the new Kindle I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. The following paragraphs highlight the good, the bad and what needs work on the new Kindle. I’ve done all of the heavy lifting and spent hours finding the strengths and shortfalls of the new reader.

You’ll find nearly 650,000 copyrighted books in the store. Amazon says the mission of the Kindle team is to put every book in the world in your hands within 60 seconds. And, while they may be able to do that, they continue to fall short in terms of providing that level of accessibility to the blind community. 

Out of the box, the Kindle is not accessible. The shipment includes a print quick-start guide and the Kindle has printed instructions on the screen telling the owner how to begin using the device. No disk is included with a copy of the guide. You’ll need to go to the Kindle web site to find a downloadable PDF copy of the manual. 

Turning on the Kindle is fairly easy. A sliding switch is located on the bottom edge of the device. However, no speech is available just by firing up the Kindle. You will need assistance navigating the menus so that a feature called Voice Guide can be activated. Note: this is a one-time activation and the Voice Guide remains on for future use.

To improve your experience when turning on your Kindle the first time, make sure you set up an account on the Amazon store prior to purchase. By doing this, your Kindle will arrive registered with your account information and you’ll save yourself some headaches. More on the cause of the potential headaches later. 

Before elaborating on Voice Guide, it’s worth noting that there are two aspects to accessibility on the device. Voice Guide is a feature that gives you a level of accessibility to menus and non-book-reading functions on the Kindle. Meanwhile, Text to Speech or TTS is what enables you to read books, magazines, newspapers, blogs and other materials you download to the Kindle. It may be best to think of Kindle as having two screen readers even though they use the same voices and speech.

The Kindle makes use of a very simple menu structure. By using Voice Guide one can move around the menus and make selections and hear various options and settings. My experience thus far indicates that all menus are fully accessible by using the 5-way key located on the lower right corner of the Kindle keyboard. Unfortunately, accessibility with Voice Guide more or less ends with the menus. 

TTS is the feature used for reading books and other publications available on the Kindle store. The store features a wide variety of content beyond books. One can read many popular magazines, local, regional and national newspapers and blogs. The key to being able to access this wealth of information and entertainment is whether or not the publisher has allowed Amazon to enable the TTS option. Unfortunately, I have been unable to find any hard numbers in terms of how many publications on the store restrict the TTS feature. Previously, publishers had indicated concerns over copyright and possible loss of audio book sales due to this feature of the Kindle. Clearly, this issue must be resolved before the Kindle is widely adopted by the blind community. Still, my initial experiences are that most books I encounter do allow for TTS usage. Each book listing on the store clearly indicates whether or not TTS is enabled for that title. Additionally, thanks to the free two-week trial offered with magazines and newspapers, I was able to test several successfully with TTS. Imagine waking up with your local paper already waiting for you on your Kindle thanks to the included wireless synching.

Activating TTS appears to be simple at first but quickly becomes a bit tedious. First, TTS must be turned on each time you launch a book. Say, for example, I am reading Time Magazine, which supports use of TTS, but then I decide to resume reading the book I purchased from the Kindle Store last week. I hit the Home button to leave Time Magazine and land at the main menu. I then use the arrow key to move through the selections and then choose the book I want to resume reading. Kindle opens to the page I last read; however, the TTS doesn’t just resume reading. Instead, I must hit a button to bring up options for that book. These include options to adjust typeface, font size and, if allowed, the TTS option. Choosing to turn on the TTS option results in Kindle resuming reading out loud from the place you previously left off. If you decide to go back to Time Magazine you will need to repeat this same process. Kindle does include use of a specific key combination to immediately begin use of TTS, though I have experienced some difficulties with this.

Whether you are a student conducting formal research for a term paper or a casual reader trying to move by paragraph or page within the publication you are reading, easy and quick navigation that is speech friendly is essential. Unfortunately, Kindle falls short in this area. While you can navigate by chapter or article, finer navigation by paragraph, sentence, line, word or character is not supported at this time. If you are looking for a product that can simply read books then the Kindle is probably a good choice; however, if you need detailed navigation, you would be better served by other reading formats.

The new Kindle offers a significant number of features beyond simply reading. For example, you can bookmark pages for later reference, make notes, highlight passages and share them on popular social media sites and look up words in the built-in dictionary. You can even search for selected words or phrases on Google and a number of other websites. Unfortunately, neither Voice Guide nor TTS work with these features and, therefore, they are not accessible. 

Remember those potential headaches I mentioned previously? One of the main selling points of the Kindle is the ability to shop for and buy books from the Kindle Store and have them appear almost immediately on your device. Sounds great right? Well, don’t expect Voice Guide or TTS to give you access to the Internets largest book store. The built in Web browser is currently not able to be accessed by low vision or blind users. You will need to shop for books on your computer or mobile phone.

Tip: the Kindle Store interface is very accessible on the iPhone through the otherwise useless Kindle app. (The Kindle app does not currently allow for Voice Over support on the iPhone or iPad platform but one can shop from within the app. Once purchased from one of these platforms, books appear on the Kindle. In short, you cannot utilize the built in web browser and therefore should expect to be unable to independently register your Kindle or to purchase books on the device itself.

Anyone who has an interest in the e-book and portable reader market knows that things have changed significantly over the past year. The Kindle is just one of many portable readers available today. The iPad and the accompanying iBooks store further disrupted the market earlier this year and more change is inevitable. Options for blind readers are also very diverse. Beyond the widely known BARD, digital NLS services and Book Share, we can choose iBooks as an option. Further changes took place just last week with increased accessibility to the KOBO service now available on Apple’s portable devices and then the introduction of the more accessible Kindle on the 27th.

Is the Kindle the best choice for you? You are the only person who can answer that question. If you do not need detailed navigation and can accept purchasing Kindle books on your mobile phone or computer then it will work well for you. However, if you need detailed navigation and want access to every feature on the device, then you should look elsewhere. My experience has been quite positive and I look forward to reading many books that I otherwise may have never found thanks to the expanded level of accessibility now available.

Larry Wanger is an experienced advocate, manager and leader in the disability field with expertise in audio production, journalism and marketing. He is employed as an operations manager at Arizona Bridge to Independent Living where he oversees the organization’s employment services programs for people with disabilities.

Additional Reading

These selected articles outline a brief history of the Kindle accessibility controversy:

Kindle 3 Reviews from around the technology industry:


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