Is the Kindle Fire Accessible For the Blind? Not Yet.

February 2, 2012

Screenshot of Kindle 3 with text-to-speech option highlightedAn article published this week in About.com Disability by Charlotte Gerber, a person with a disability, provided an informative overview of the Kindle Fire as an “accessibility device for the disabled.” As with other e-readers like the Nook and iPad, Amazon’s Kindle Fire has given many people with disabilities the capability to read longform books without dealing with the accessibility limitations imposed by a physical book. Fonts are scalable, the devices are lighter and easier to hold than most physical books, and the book content is portable across devices. Gerber provides an informative list of pros and cons of the Kindle Fire, in the context of her own disability. However, given the title of her article – An Accessibility Device for the Disabled – the glaring weakness in the About.com review is that it does not address significant accessibility issues for blind and low-vision readers.

When the Kindle Fire was announced last fall, it came under withering criticism from blind consumers, including the National Federation of the Blind and the American Foundation for the Blind. Debra Ruh, the CEO of TecAccess, a prominent accessibility consulting firm, wrote this insightful article on the Kindle accessibility issues raised by blind readers.

It was pointed out in Ruh’s article that Apple has been more proactive than Amazon with providing accessible solutions for blind readers of its iPad and iPhone devices. Amazon instituted a text-to-speech feature in the second- and third-generation Kindle devices only in response to pressure from the blind – and did not include this feature in the Kindle Fire.

Since this topic hit the accessibility blogosphere last fall, I have detected little progress in the efforts by Amazon to improve vision-related accessibility on the Kindle Fire.

In “My Afternoons with Margueritte”, a 2010 movie from France, Margueritte, the elderly woman played by Gisèle Casadesus, asks Germain (Gerard Depardieu) to read books to her every afternoon. As they are both passionate about reading books, they enjoy their time together. Not revealed until later in the movie is that Margueritte has age-related macular degeneration – a common affliction which will become more prevalent as the huge baby-boomer generation ages. This was the reason Margueritte needed help from a younger person like Germain to read books to her.

If the Kindle Fire cannot take on the role of Germain in “reading” books to mature readers with vision issues, then other e-book devices will fill in the gap as the over-60 set reaches 25% of the U.S. population in the next two decades. It is not an issue of reacting after-the-fact to the needs of visually impaired readers, as Amazon was forced to do for its earlier-generation Kindles. If a significant portion of the U.S. population has a clear, identifiable disability, it behooves Amazon to incorporate the needs of that segment into the design of its next e-reader, and avoid permanent damage to its brand equity.

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    Diane Marks November 19, 2012 at 3:39 pm

    I know what you mean. Having just gotten a kindle keyboard i find the text to speech very good, however the fact that Amazon wont or can’t integrate text to speech and magnification onto their new designs I will never know. They will only be pressurised into it if we within the visually impaired community put pressure on them. Don’t they realise they are cutting their noses off to spite their faces. They have a willing user community who want to read like anybody else and yet they are not willing to integrate it. They could sell so much more if they made their kindles fully accessible.

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