Accessibility and E-Readers

E-readers (portable devices used primarily for reading electronic books) and general purpose tablets with book-reading apps, like the iPad, are fast becoming popular choices for reading the growing collection of books available in electronic formats. Both types arrived with some accessibility advantages, and developers have been making their products more accessible to people with visual and dexterity disabilities. This article is a summary of the current accessibility state-of-the-art for the most popular of these devices, as well as information on using computers to access e-books. The field is evolving due to lawsuits against schools and libraries, by groups concerned with access.

Most e-readers have features that make them easier for some users, compared to printed books: lighter weight, buttons or screen gestures for page-turning, magnification, and good contrast in low light. Brands and models differ widely on these and more advanced features such as text-to-speech, easy-to-use controls, and screens that perform well in all lighting conditions.

For all devices, some e-books will not be available via speech because of restrictions imposed by publishers, who want to protect their audiobook sales from competition.

Kindle

When the Kindle first came out from Amazon they proudly announced a speech output system that provided almost complete non-visual access to content and navigation. It is not true that all Kindle models have this feature however. The latest Amazon Kindle Paperwhite does not have text to speech. It lacks a speaker and headphone jack. Nor does the $69 Kindle. The Kindle Keyboard 3G and Kindle Fire do have text to speech.

The PageBot (Orin Technologies) provides switch-activated access to the Kindle for readers with severe physical disabilities.

Kindle for PC, software which allows Kindle e-books to be read via a Windows computer, now has a free accessibility plug-in, which addresses several of the access barriers that blind or low vision individuals would find when using the Kindle. According to a review by the American Foundation for the Blind, the plug-in provides good compatibility with the JAWS and NVDA screen readers, and with the ZoomText magnification program.

As of September 2011, users can download Kindle books from their public libraries, using Overdrive, an online publishing service.  If buying one, you may need to research the access features of that individual model.

Nook (Barnes and Noble)

While older Nooks lacked it, Nook HD now has text-to-speech. It uses Pico, a freely licensed app from Svox. You can turn in on in the full settings menu, under Applications and Reader. TTS may be a check box about half way down the page. Or it may say: "Enable accessibility – Currently in BETA.” When you start a book, it should start reading automatically, howevery you may need to touch the screen to prompt it to start. Reviews of the voice are not positive.

Kobo (Borders)

Kobo does not provide text-to-speech options for reading books.  Kobo has both Android and iOS apps available, so text-to-speech may come from an installed app.

Sony Reader

Sony has an app for Android devices and is negotiating with Apple to release a similar app for iOS. The PRS-T1 can download the FBReader from the Android Marketplace and provides text to speech through a headphone plugged into the device.

iPad (Apple)

The iPad is being embraced as an e-reader due to its built-in accessibility features as well as its many non-reading functions. As Ars Technica noted, "[U]sers can turn on VoiceOver so that every object, menu item, and line of text is read aloud, and the speed of reading can be adjusted to the user's taste as well as the use of phonetics and pitch changes. When typing (say, if you're making a note in a book), the device can also read aloud the keyboard characters you're typing, as well as suggested spelling corrections." The iPad also provides decent magnification and is compatible with braille devices. There's an app for DAISY books, an accessibility-oriented publishing format. The National Federation for the Blind has posted a short video demonstrating the superior accessibility of the iPad 2 over the Nook for blind users.

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