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

August 31, 2010 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

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:

Categories: accessibility, Kindle, reviews

Don’t Miss the Return of the Desert Cafe to ACB Radio Interactive

August 19, 2010 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

The Desert Cafe is open for business and back on ACB Radio Interactive once again.

So, after a long day at  work or school, come  in , sit  back and chill out.

We will  serve more than just your favorite beverages.  There will be other goodies to nosh on  while you kick  back and listen or  dance to the tunes.

Go ahead,step inside,get out of the heat and  sit down in   one of our comfy Chairs,recliners  or lounges. Sun goddesses can relax on the patio. We have misters to make it a more pleasant experience.

The doors will  open at 6 p.m. Pacific, 9 p.m. Eastern on Monday Aug 23 or 01:00 UTC Tuesday Aug. 24.

You may tune into ACB Radio Interactive and listen with your favorite media player or portable device.

Coffee and other items will be served up along with music  from the 60’s through today.

Darrell and I will greet all of you at the door and little Joycie will be there with her licks and waggie tail. Hope to see you there.

Categories: broadcasting

Apple Needs to Refund VoiceOver Users for Inaccessible Apps

August 15, 2010 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

By guest writer Michael Hansen.

With the release of IM+ Pro—an instant messaging client for the iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad—with VoiceOver support, I got to thinking: I don’t mind paying $10 to an app developer for an app with full VoiceOver accessibility. However, I do mind paying any amount to a developer for an application that I cannot use. The exception is @Planetbeing’s Signal app, which I would buy regardless because he and the Dev Team have done the jailbreak community a great service with all of their hard work on jailbreaks/unlocks for the iOS platform. @Planetbeing’s app aside (which I haven’t bought yet because I cannot currently access Cydia with VoiceOver), I see no reason to pay for an application that I cannot use, be it an iPhone app or something for my Windows computer.

Palringo Poses Problems

Within the last couple weeks, I purchased Palringo Instant Messenger Premium, developed by Palringo Limited, from the iTunes Store. I was able to log into AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), but was not able to log into Facebook. VoiceOver reported “Facebook…logging in,” when I tapped that icon. Even after I confirmed that Palringo accessing Facebook was okay (my account had been frozen because Facebook had not recognized Palringo) I still got the same “logging in” message.

Accessibility Problems Start With AIM

In AIM, the situation was different but no less problematic. While I was able to access my contacts list and receive messages, I was unable to read the messages—VoiceOver would read the contact’s name but not the message itself. There went $4.99. Thanks, Palringo.

Apple Grants One-Time Refund for Palringo…Grudgingly

This afternoon, I contacted Apple through the iTunes Store to request a refund for Palringo Instant Messenger Premium, due to inaccessibility. In an e-mail sent at 6:22 PM CDT today, Apple said they would reverse the charge for Palringo Instant Messenger Premium—just this one time.

“I’m sorry to hear that you can’t use ‘Palringo Instant Messenger Premium’ with your device,” said Lilly, the iTunes Customer Support representative who responded to my request. “Please note that The iTunes Store Terms of Sale state that all sales are final, so this is a one-time exception.”

So what does Apple expect the blindness community to do? Pay for apps and not be able to use them? Install pirated versions to try them out before buying them in the app store? I don’t think so.

Apple needs to consistently provide refunds to VoiceOver users for inaccessible apps—it’s as simple as that. I will never download pirated applications, but honestly, given that Apple does not have an app trial service, I’m not surprised that Piracy is as big as it is—the lack of a trial service effects many more people than just VoiceOver users. It is in Apple’s best interests, no matter what way they look at it, to institute a trial service—the Android folks have already figured that one out.

I also think that Apple should require developers to list VoiceOver support in their application descriptions in the iTunes store, similar to how they list iOS version compatibility.

Next Steps Likely Uphill

I plan to contact Palringo Limited to ask about future accessibility of their products. I am also going to present my concerns to Apple.

Please stay tuned, as I will write when I have any updates.

Michael Hansen is totally blind and is a senior at Addison Trail High School in Addison, IL. Previously, he was the Editor-in-Chief of the Skyline newspaper at Willowbrook High School in Villa Park, IL, during the 2009-2010 school year. He can be reached at AMTK62 (at) gmail (dot) com.

Accessible Instant Messaging iPhone App Hits the iTunes Store

August 13, 2010 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

A highly-anticipated update to Shape Services’ popular IM+ iPhone app featuring comprehensive VoiceOver accessibility hit the iTunes Store Thursday.

According to its iTunes Store entry, the new version 4.30 of this app, renamed IM+ Pro, features “New themes and wallpapers, hi-res graphics for iPhone 4, full VoiceOver support, setting own display picture from iPhone 4 front camera, improved contact search and bug fixes.”

Blind high school senior Michael Hansen said he was delighted to learn of the accessible instant messaging option for his new iPhone.

“I use my iPhone mainly for various applications, messaging, and phone calls,” Hansen said. “I just found out about it this morning and I immediately purchased the app and tweeted to @implus to thank them for their work.”

He said IM+ Pro works better for him than other apps he has tried.

“I started out last week using Palringo, and I found that to be unsatisfactory because I could not log into Facebook and I could not read messages that were sent to me from AOL Instant Messenger,” Hansen said. “There went $4. I think that Apple should refund VoiceOver users if an app they purchased is not accessible. ”

He said IM+ works just fine with AIM, but he is having an accessibility problem connecting with Facebook.

“I have tried to connect to AOL Instant Messenger and Facebook; AIM worked fine, but Facebook did not,” Hansen said. “When I tried to add Facebook as a service, I got a message saying that I would have to tap the ‘Connect’ button to validate my information. However, I could not, for the life of me, find the ‘Connect’ button.”

He said he is confident the Facebook issue will be fixed quickly.

“I think that Shape Services has done the VoiceOver community a big service, and the Facebook connect button issue is a small bump in the road which I would imagine they could fix quickly,” Hansen said. “I just wish more app developers cared about accessibility—that’s the biggest problem with using an iPhone right now.”

Shape Services’ business development team official Natalia Kasyanova said the company has another nice surprise in store for blind users in the coming weeks.

“I would like to confirm that we are planning to release an IM+ Lite version with VoiceOver support by the end of August. It is a free adware version of IM+ which has the same functionality as IM+ Pro,” Kasyanova said. “We hope that it will make instant messaging even more available for blind users of iPhones and iPads.”

Popular Instant Messaging iPhone App to Get VoiceOver Accessibility

August 4, 2010 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

Shape Services committed Wednesday to make its flagship IM+ instant messaging application for the iPhone accessible to blind people by way of Apple’s built-in VoiceOver screen reader.

“We are sending IM+ Pro v.4.3 with VoiceOver support for App Store review today and expect its publishing in a week or so,” said Natalia Kasyanova, a representative from the company’s business development team in a Wednesday morning e-mail.

Kasyanova said VoiceOver accessibility will move to IM+ Lite in the coming weeks and to the rest of the company’s products over an unspecified time frame.

“Apple’s VoiceOver accessibility programming guide is really helpful, however, its implementation process requires some time and developers’ resources, considering the number of Shape’s apps in iTunes,” she said. “We realize the importance of disabled peoples’ support and would try to do our best in making our apps available and useful for them.”

Kasyanova said Shape Services invites feedback through the built-in forms found in its apps, the company’s Support Center website, the IM+ Forum and Twitter.

Kasyanova said the company announces beta testing opportunities from time to time and blind VoiceOver users are welcome to apply.

Categories: accessibility, iPhone

Posting Ratings and Reviews in the iTunes Store Using VoiceOver on the Mac Demystified

August 2, 2010 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

Some blind users of Apple’s built-in VoiceOver Mac OS X screen reader have reported an inability to rate content or post reviews in the iTunes Store. Apple has responded with a solution that has been confirmed to solve the problem effectively.

The trouble is found in the way the ratings widget interacts with VoiceOver, said Nate Doss, a member of Apple’s executive relations team.

“Each review requires that you rate the product you wish to review,” he said. “The normal VoiceOver command for pressing a button does not set the star rating. Instead, you would have to try the “Move Mouse Cursor to VoiceOver Cursor”
command (Control Option Command F5) which would then set the star rating to whatever rating desired.”

Doss said there is a secondary issue involving notification of blind users when the content on a dynamic page has changed.

“To start writing a review, there is a link that you press called ‘Write a Review’ or ‘Be the first to write a review’,” he said. “When you press that link, the review writing tools are revealed within the page, but the application does not notify VoiceOver that the page was changed. This is a common problem with websites that use JavaScript to change the part of a web page instantly without reloading the entire page. From your perspective, there was no change in the page. However, if you were to explore the page, you would discover that there are new elements on the page.”

Doss said Apple’s developers are aware of this issue and are working to fix it in a future update.

Follow these steps to rate a product in the iTunes Store:

  1. Browse to or search for an app, podcast, song or other content in the iTunes Store.
  2. Follow the link to view its page in the store.
  3. Move down to the “Rate this application:” section of the page.
  4. Move to the desired star rating you wish to assign.
  5. Press Control+Option+Command+F5 to move the mouse cursor to the position of the VoiceOver cursor on the desired star rating.
  6. If you explore past the end of the star ratings, you will now see a description of that rating. For instance, “it’s great” will be displayed if you positioned the mouse cursor on the “rate five stars” option. If this description is not present, you have not succeeded. Try again.
  7. Move back to the desired star rating and press the typical Control+Option+Space Bar command to rate the content.
  8. If you explore past the end of the star ratings, you will now see the word “thanks.” This means you have successfully rated the content in the iTunes Store. If you do not see “thanks,” you have not succeeded. Try repeating these steps.

Follow these steps to post a review in the iTunes Store:

  1. Browse to or search for an app, podcast, song or other content in the iTunes Store.
  2. Follow the link to view its page in the store.
  3. Move down to the “Customer Reviews” section of the page.
  4. To start writing a review, follow the link called “Write a Review” or “Be the first to right a review.”
  5. Follow the steps previously described for rating content.
  6. Fill out the title and text body as appropriate.
  7. Move to the Submit button and press the typical Control+Option+Space Bar command to post the review.

We thank Apple for their diligent work in getting to the bottom of this perplexing issue.


Another solution exists that enables posting of reviews without the extra mouse cursor movement command. It involves changing VoiceOver preferences that affect its cursor tracking behavior everywhere on your system. This supplementary solution may not be the right one for everyone.

Follow these steps to modify VoiceOver preferences so that the mouse cursor always follows the VoiceOver cursor:

  1. Press Control+Option+F8 to open the VoiceOver Utility.
  2. Press Control+Option+Down Arrow to interact with the categories table.
  3. Press n to move to the Navigation category.
  4. Press Control+Option+Up Arrow to stop interacting with the categories table.
  5. Press Control+Option+Right Arrow until you hear “mouse cursor.”
  6. Press Control+Option+Right Arrow once more to move focus to the popup associated with this field. The default setting is “ignore VoiceOver cursor.”
  7. Press Control+Option+Space Bar to open the popup.
  8. Press down arrow until you hear “follows VoiceOver Cursor.”
  9. Press Control+Option+Space Bar to select the option to have the mouse cursor follow the VoiceOver cursor.
  10. Press Command+Q to close the VoiceOver Utility.
  11. Post reviews in the iTunes Store at will.