Opening the Secret Garden: Kindle to Become More Accessible

By Tom Peters |

When it comes to blind and low-vision members of our society, the stakes of the digital information revolution may be higher for than for the sighted population.  Once a text has been created in or converted to a digital format, the accessibility options blossom and bloom, at least in theory.  

The Kindle has been a particularly nettlesome, tantalizing thorn in this garden of digital delights.  On the one hand, the Kindle was the first mainstream portable eReading device to offer an embedded text-to-speech (TTS) function that could convert any eBook into a passable auditory eReading experience on the fly.  Imagine that--anyone (sighted or print-impaired) could download any of hundreds of thousands of titles in less than a minute from most anywhere and begin listening to the TTS version immediately, for about $10 a pop, after making their initial Kindle investment. 

One group immediately took notice of this new garden of portable auditory eReading delights and saw a problem.  The Authors Guild did not like the fact that now any person reading a book on a Kindle could turn it into what they considered an “audio performance” without any compensation to those who hold the audio performance rights to these texts.

Print-impaired users and the groups that support and represent them also noticed another frustrating problem with this new Secret Garden:  The Kindle as a device was not accessible to print-impaired readers.  The process of starting the TTS version of an eBook loaded on a Kindle was nearly impossible to perform by a blind or low-vision user.  Complaints, lawsuits, and boycotts ensued.

This week, Amazon, the “deus ex machina” in this morality tale, announced that they plan to make the Kindle more accessible to print-impaired individuals in 2010.  Audible menu options will be added, and larger font sizes will be made available.  These enhancements probably will not appear until this summer.  The proof will be in the potpourri. 

There’s also the small matter of the cost to enter and enjoy the delights of this Secret Garden.  Many blind and low-vision individuals live on fixed incomes.  Now that the general unemployment rate has reached ten percent, we all need a gentle reminder that the unemployment rate for certain segments of society, including the blind and low-vision members of our society, is consistently well above ten percent. 

If public pressure can force Amazon to try to make their Kindle Garden more accessible to the print-impaired, let’s hope that market pressure will lower the overall cost of owning and reading on a portable eReading device.  Let’s also keep in mind that libraries provide a good, low-cost, reading option for the good of the public.  As eReading on portable devices takes off, librarians need to be strong advocates for a low-cost eReading option for the good of all citizens.