Tuesday’s highly-anticipated launch of new e-book reading software took off without accessibility for blind readers.
Developed by K-NFB Reading Technology, Inc., a joint venture between Kurzweil Technologies and the National Federation of the Blind, Blio was promoted as a cross-platform, accessible, visually appealing way to read books.
Instead of a new way to read books, blind users found a note buried in the website’s downloads page stating: “An accessible version of Blio will be available for download in October.”
James Gashel, vice president of business development with K-NFB Reading Technology, said Blio was launched without accessibility because adding it made the software too unstable for public release.
“Obviously, I want Blio to be accessible on the first day. There’s no question about that,” said Gashel, who serves on the board of the National Federation of the Blind. “We pressed toward having the same level of accessibility, but it doesn’t make sense to invest effort in making software that doesn’t run right accessible at the time of launch.”
Blind readers, who said they were looking forward to an additional way to get more books in an accessible format, immediately began expressing their disappointment by way of the Twitter social network.
Blind computer science student Kevin Chao said Blio crashed after ten minutes even without the accessibility features.
“I brought up the table of contents in the Getting Started book, tabbed around and Blio crashed,” Chao said.
“Blio has failed on a number of counts,” Chao said. “It’s not fully accessible, it’s too late and it seems not to have garnered any traction in the mainstream.”
Chao, who describes himself as a tech enthusiast who pushes the limits by testing products for accessibility, assessed Blio’s launch performance.
He said Blio is missing basic interface and navigation features found in software that has been made accessible to screen readers for the blind.
“There is no menu interface, just a lot of buttons and other controls,” Chao said. “Pressing the tab, shift-tab and arrow keys produce unreliable results. There also appear to be no hotkeys to activate any buttons or navigate to various fields or controls within the application.”
He said Blio’s book reading features are also not accessible.
“Using JAWS, I could read the first line of a book. I could listen to a book using ‘read aloud’, but there is no way of navigating,” Chao said. “I can read the Getting Started guide when hitting ENTER on the ‘read aloud’ option, but I can’t control voice features like rate and pitch.”
Gashel said accessibility is a Blio feature that will improve as the software evolves.
“I would look at Blio as rolling out, and so not all of the features of Blio that are supposed to work for everybody are working on the first day,” said Gashel. “What we’re focused on is whether or not Blio will be accessible. It will be. There’s no retreat or backing up.”
Another disappointed blind book enthusiast asked what would happen if key features for sighted readers were left out of the product.
“I wonder how this would go over?” asked Richard Wells, a blind Baptist pastor who also does quality-assurance testing for an assistive technology company that provides screen-reading software for the blind. “New book reader just released. The visual display should work some time next month.”