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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

Good Thursday TV Coverage of the Kindle Lawsuit

July 3, 2009 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

At around 4:00 Thursday afternoon, I was contacted by Melissa Blasius with Channel 12 News in Phoenix and asked if I could be available at 5:30 to be interviewed for a story that would run on the 10:00 newscast. I discovered I could prepare myself and make the necessary transportation arrangements for this sort of work within one hour after receiving the request.

You may now watch the video of the story on the 10:00 evening news. An article was also written based on this story, though its text is significantly different from the dialogue on the newscast. A copy of the article’s text is provided for easy accessibility.

My thanks go to Chris Skarstad (Toonhead) and CathyAnne Murtha of the Access Technology Institute for their vital assistance making it possible to bring to all of you a direct link to the video despite accessibility issues with the 12 News web site.

Lawsuit says ASU discriminates by using e-books

by Melissa Blasius – Jul. 2, 2009 11:13 PM

12 News

A journalism student has filed a discrimination lawsuit against Arizona State University.

Darrell Shandrow, a junior, wants the university to delay a pilot program for electronic textbooks and readers called Kindles. He says the devices, made by Amazon, are impossible to use by visually-impaired people.

Sandrow, who is blind, says Kindles have a text-to-audio function that can read the books out loud, but he claims on-screen menus have no audio functions. That means he could never navigate to page one. Blind students would have to continue ordering specialty texts in braille or audio formats, and those books can take months to arrive.

Shandrow said, “Asking us to continue on as we’re going is like saying to sighted students you are climbing on to jet age with your e-books, but blind students still need to use the horse and buggy.”

The National Federation of the Blind and the American Council of the Blind are also plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which claims ASU’s use of Kindles would put blind students on unequal footing.

An ASU spokesman sent a response to 12 News. It said Kindles would be used “for a single course where students may also access traditional textbooks.”

In the statement, Spokesman Virgil Renzulli also said all campuses have Disability Resource Centers “providing the necessary tools so that all students with disabilities have an equal opportunity to be successful in their academic pursuits.”

Categories: accessibility, Kindle, lawsuit, news, TV

Positive TV News Coverage of the Kindle Lawsuit Against ASU

July 1, 2009 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

Shortly after 9:00 Tuesday morning, I was contacted by Tim Vetscher with Channel 15, a local ABC affiliate in Phoenix, and asked to participate in a story on the Kindle lawsuit. He picked me up at 10:15 and we went to a nearby bar-restaurant establishment called Four Peaks Brewry, where he and Toby Phillips, a senior broadcast journalism major at the Cronkite School, talked with me for almost 45 minutes. The interview included a demonstration of Braille reading and accessible technology, part of which made it into the TV story.

After viewing the story, Chris Danielsen, director of public relations for the National Federation of the Blind, said: “Nice job on this. I see that they didn’t get the nuance that books can be read aloud by the Kindle DX; it’s the navigation that’s not accessible. Still, I think we got our point across.”

The story ran on the 6:00 evening newscast. I am happy to report that you can now watch the video or read the transcript below.

Reported by: Tim Vetscher


Darrell Shandrow, a junior at ASU, is suing the university over its use of the Amazon Kindle for textbooks. (Tim Vetscher)

TEMPE, AZ — A student at Arizona State University is suing the school over a new electronic textbook reader.

Junior Darrell Shandrow calls ASU’s new pilot program to use the Amazon Kindle e-book reader in some classes this fall discrimination.

“I believe it’s important for blind and visually impaired people to have the same opportunity to participate the sighted already enjoy,” said Shandrow.

Even though he can’t see, Shandrow doesn’t shy away from technology.

Thanks to a screen reading program, Shandrow uses a labtop computer that talks to him and tells him what’s on the screen.

That kind of accessibility, Shandrow says, helps him to attend ASU, where he’s a junior in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

When ASU announced plans to begin using the Amazon Kindle as a textbook reader, Shandrow immediately had concerns.

“It’s saying we’re giving sighted students a new avenue for reading but we’re not granting the same facility to blind and visually impaired students,”
said Shandrow.

Shandrow claims the Kindle lacks text-to-speech technology and therefore makes it accessible only to sighted students.

So Shandrow filed a lawsuit against ASU hoping to stop the use of the Kindle.

“We want the pilot program, we just want it to be accessible,” said Shandrow.

An ASU spokesperson released the following statement to ABC15: “Arizona State University is committed to equal access for all students. Disability Resource Centers are located on all ASU campuses. The Centers enable students to establish eligibility and obtain services and accommodations for qualified students with disabilities. These efforts are focused on providing the necessary tools so that all students with disabilities have an equal opportunity to be successful in their academic pursuits.”

“I feel the need for equal accessibility, that is to have an accessible Kindle reading device and accessible books, is a civil right,” said Shandrow.

Amazon claims to be working on adding navigation accessible to the blind for the Kindle.

Shandrow says until that happens, the Kindle e-book reader should be shelved.

In the interest of full disclosure, reporter Tim Vetscher is an adjunct professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

Categories: accessibility, Kindle, lawsuit, news, TV

Complaint and Motion for Preliminary Injunction Against ASU and the Arizona Board of Regents

June 25, 2009 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

In keeping with our tradition of accessibility and openness, we are glad to provide full plain-text copies of the complaint and the motion for a preliminary injunction against ASU and the Arizona Board of Regents to prevent use of the inaccessible Kindle in an upcoming fall semester university pilot program.


Accessible copy of the complaint (The NATIONAL FEDERATION OF THE BLIND, The AMERICAN COUNCIL OF THE BLIND, and DARRELL SHANDROW vs. The ARIZONA BOARD OF REGENTS and ARIZONA STATE UNIVERSITY) for discrimination against blind and visually impaired students under the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act.

Motion for Preliminary Injunction

Accessible copy of the motion for a preliminary injunction asking the court to immediately stop ASU from implementing the pilot program at the beginning of the fall semester on August 24 while the complaint goes forward.

Categories: accessibility, Kindle, lawsuit

Darrell Shandrow Joins ACB and NFB to File Discrimination Suit Against ASU Over Inaccessible Amazon Kindle DX Pilot Program

June 25, 2009 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker



  • Chris Danielsen
  • Director of Public Relations
  • National Federation of the Blind
  • (410) 659-9314, extension 2330
  • (410) 262-1281 (Cell)

National Federation of the Blind and American Council of the Blind File Discrimination Suit Against Arizona State University

University’s Amazon Kindle DX Pilot Program Discriminates Against the Blind

Tempe, Arizona (June 25, 2009): The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and the American Council of the Blind (ACB) filed suit today against Arizona State University (ASU) to prevent the university from deploying Amazon’s Kindle DX electronic reading device as a means of distributing electronic textbooks to its students because the device cannot be used by blind students. Darrell Shandrow, a blind ASU student, is also a named plaintiff in the action. The Kindle DX features text-to-speech technology that can read textbooks aloud to blind students. The menus of the device are not accessible to the blind, however, making it impossible for a blind user to purchase books from Amazon’s Kindle store, select a book to read, activate the text-to-speech feature, and use the advanced reading functions available on the Kindle DX. In addition to ASU, five other institutions of higher education are deploying the Kindle DX as part of a pilot project to assess the role of electronic textbooks and reading devices in the classroom. The NFB and ACB have also filed complaints with the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education and the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, asking for investigations of these five institutions, which are: Case Western Reserve University, the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, Pace University, Princeton University, and Reed College. The lawsuit and complaints allege violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Dr. Marc Maurer, President of the National Federation of the Blind, said: “Given the highly-advanced technology involved, there is no good reason that Amazon’s Kindle DX device should be inaccessible to blind students. Amazon could have used the same text-to-speech technology that reads e-books on the device aloud to make its menus accessible to the blind, but it chose not to do so. Worse yet, six American higher education institutions that are subject to federal laws requiring that they not discriminate against students with disabilities plan to deploy this device, even though they know that it cannot be used by blind students. The National Federation of the Blind will not tolerate this unconscionable discrimination against and callous indifference to the right of blind students to receive an equal education. We hope that this situation can be rectified in a manner that allows this exciting new reading technology to be made available to blind and sighted students alike.”

Darrell Shandrow, a blind student pursuing a degree in journalism at ASU, said: “Not having access to the advanced reading features of the Kindle DX—including the ability to download books and course materials, add my own bookmarks and notes, and look up supplemental information instantly on the Internet when I encounter it in my reading—will lock me out of this new technology and put me and other blind students at a competitive disadvantage relative to our sighted peers. While my peers will have instant access to their course materials in electronic form, I will still have to wait weeks or months for accessible texts to be prepared for me, and these texts will not provide the access and features available to other students. That is why I am standing up for myself and with other blind Americans to end this blatant discrimination.”