By Laine Amoureux
Recently Amazon released an App for IOS devices that adheres to the accessibility guidelines for Apple products. This may be the first step to Kindle access. Access to titles is still dependent upon the publisher’s willingness to enable the text-to-speech features of the electronic texts they sell through Amazons virtual store front. Read Dr. Maurer’s comments at https://nfb.org/national-
Amazon Kindle is a large textbook service provider. Amazon has pushed for the use of Kindle e-books in classrooms around the country. The Amazon virtual store front offers, from what I can tell, the largest number of publishers to users. I have been following Kindle books for many years, envisioning the potential for blind and visually impaired AT users.
A year ago I found the Kindle app in the Apple App store on my iPhone and downloaded it. The app was free and downloaded at the touch of a button in the app store. When the app was downloaded and installed I activated the icon for it and was immediately disappointed. The app froze my phone. I not only was unable to hear items that were displayed on the screen, but I was unable to return to the home screen, lock my phone or shut it down. I was forced to manually reset my phone. When my phone rebooted I promptly deleted the app from my home screen and did not return to the app until May 1, 2013, at which time I was pleasantly surprised, and excited with the result of my App Store download.
How to get the App: To locate and download the IOS app on your mobile apple device follow the same steps you would to locate and install any other app. Launch the app the same way you would launch any other app. When the app loads you are prompted to log into Amazon. Use the same credentials you use if you already shop on Amazon or Audible. If you do not have an existing Amazon account you will need to create one. All fields, buttons, and text instructions were spoken by VoiceOver with no guess work. My bookshelf appeared immediately and provided me the ability to browse the title and author information. VoiceOver also announces whether the title has already been downloaded or not.
Introduction to the App and Screen orientation: Along the bottom of the screen there are four buttons that are announced. A button to switch the view of titles from a list to a grid, the settings button, and a Cloud button to view my virtual bookshelf of books that have not been downloaded and a device button that displays which books have been downloaded. I was pleasantly surprised to find a “Welcome to Kindle” document.
To improve familiarity with the app the surprise document should be the place to start. When the document opened VoiceOver made an announcement to swipe two fingers down to begin reading the document, double tap and hold to display the menu and tap and hold text to begin highlight. This worked, and I listened to the short document explaining how to get started with the App. The instructions were for the general user, not the VoiceOver user, but this is not an uncommon thing, and typically easily interpreted and overcome. It is encouraging that the VoiceOver instructions are automatically spoken when the app recognizes VoiceOver is running. Personally, I would like to see that feature as a setting that can be toggled on and off. If I frequently use the app the announcements will eventually become more annoying than helpful. There is a book available in the Kindle store that provides instruction on how to use the Kindle App as a VoiceOver user. At this time, the title is not included in the initial App download, but the suggestion has been made to the developers to include this title, as well as the default “Welcome to Kindle” document.
How it Works: You will need to use an Internet browser to navigate to the Amazon Kindle store. Apple charges companies like Amazon a large fee if they develop an app that would permit the customer to shop in the respective Kindle store. The fee would be passed on to Kindle customers, and in an effort to keep the app free Amazon has chosen the slightly more complex shopping option.
To purchase a book, or put a free book in your virtual bookshelf, you must go to amazon.com, search the Kindle store for a title, and proceed through the Amazon checkout process. The process does require you to have an Amazon account with username and password. As you shop for a title in the Kindle store I strongly suggest you look for the phrase “text to speech enabled”. If the publisher has disallowed text to speech, and you purchase the title, VoiceOver will announce that “VoiceOver does not support this content” when you download and open the title on your IOS device.
Accessibility: The menus and all of the controls within the menus were accessible. The menus allow the user to change the font type, size, and colors. At this time the user choices for the visual enhancements are limited to a few font types, only 12 different sizes, and only 3 color schemes. I found the options in the “go to menu” to be a little complicated. Depending on the structure of the book the user can go to different elements or electronic tags. The user can also go to personal book marks and highlights. The confusing option is the “go to location” option. The app prompts the user to type a number. My initial thought is to type the page number; however location and page number is not the same thing. I discovered the difference when I found a menu slider that allows the user to move through the book by percentages. The slider announces things like, “30% location 3967 of 13,264.” My book does not have 13,264 pages.
Navigating the text of a book: Sighted users are granted inherent benefits of viewing a screen visually. For example, the special fonts and large typefaces that visually denote a chapter or section. Attaching electronic tags that denote these same features for a screen reader user is no different than the fact that the visual attributes were applied to the font in the first place. The font attributes were applied to help a sighted reader skim the text as the electronic tags permit a screen reader user to skim text in a similar fashion.
In one demonstration title it is possible to set the VoiceOver rotor to an element or electronic tag like character, heading, or word, and navigate the text by that element or electronic tag. In another demonstration text it is possible to adjust the rotor setting but not navigate by that setting. Each title is a little different, and the reason for the differences varies, but is likely to be related to the publisher that created the electronic text and tags. The Kindle app is only one of many methods of accessing the text and is not responsible for creating the electronic text and tags; only displaying it.
Highlighting text is the single disappointing feature of the app. VoiceOver announces “double tap and hold to begin highlight”. As I move my finger across the screen the word beneath my finger is spoken. When I raise my finger I am provided with options for different colored high lights or to create a note. In order to locate the highlights and notes at a later time the user returns to the “go to menu.” The user is unable to tell what was selected until the “go to menu” is used to return to the highlight. The fact that each word under the users finger is helpful, but does not notify the user when his or her finger slid down a line or two in the text, consequently highlighting more than may have been intended. When the user recognizes the finger did not slide in an exact horizontal line and try to slide back up to the beginning line, there is no indicator that text has been un-highlighted.
Sighted users have an inherent advantage when using and referring to highlighted passages in text. The eye is drawn to the color differences. Additionally, the sighted user is better able to use color coding to categorize information. For example, the individual may use blue to highlight vocabulary words, pink to highlight passages designated relevant to a research paper, and orange for passages that need more attention to understand. The way that the highlighting currently works for a VoiceOver user is not as efficient or functional. The VoiceOver user has no indication of a highlight in the text being spoken. The only method of knowing something is highlighted is to access the “go to menu.” When accessing highlighted items in the “go to menu,” VoiceOver users have no way of identifying, other than context, what was highlighted. The color the VoiceOver user chooses is irrelevant because VoiceOver does not indicate what color the highlight was, creating no method for the user to categorize information using highlight.
Conclusion: The Kindle App for IOS is a large step forward in accessibility to Kindle books. As with anything, the first version is never perfect, and the Kindle developers are working hard to provide access to the Kindle library. The larger disappointment, than the app, which biggest downfall is confusing “locations” and difficult to use highlights, is that all electronic texts are not created equal. This cannot be attributed to Amazon. The company is a virtual store front, selling the accessible and inaccessible products manufactures, in this case publishers, provide to them to sell. There are still titles like the Anatomy and Physiology book I need for my summer class that cannot be accessed by a blind user in the accessible IOS App because the publisher has opted to leave the text to speech functionality of the App out of the books feature list. I am excited to see what the App developers, and Kindle player developers have in store for us in the future.
The App does require the user of the IOS device enable VoiceOver screen reader to access the app just as the “Kindle with PC with Accessibility Plug-in” requires the computer user to have a third party screen reader like JAWS, NVDA or Window Eyes installed. Without the text to speech feature of the IOS device the remainder of the device would be inaccessible to the user. Without NVDA or JAWS the rest of the computer remains inaccessible to the user. It is natural that App developers would take advantage of the built in accessibility features of a device. If the IPad was not accessible, but the App for the Kindle books was, I still wouldn’t buy an IPad just to listen to Kindle books. I would want all of the features of the IPad made accessible to me. When App developers do include self-voicing controls and text in the Apps they develop, whether for PC or for mobile devices, the consistency of use varies among Apps, but more importantly, the size of the App is increased when extensive programming, like text to speech, is added. If the App is larger it takes up more storage space on the device, further limiting the other things you, as the user, might want to download and use as well as the number of titles you can download. The IOS devices and your PC do not have unlimited storage space to accommodate everything one might need or want. When critics of Kindle, Nook, or other text book providers make the argument that the company should include text to speech and Braille access, at all levels, from the inception of the product, they don’t consider that many times the developers are writing add-ons to the mobile device or computer the user might use to access the content. Those who argue for built in text to speech in add-ons should be directing their efforts toward the developer of the device they are using to access the add-on, like Microsoft, which until recently, did not include a functional screen reading solution in their computer operating system. With that said however, I do agree with these critics when it comes to the Amazon Kindle standalone devices. Amazon has a long way to go with the accessibility of the Kindle players. The players are not add-ons, but standalone devices, and accessibility needs to be included from inception of the device.
With the introduction of the accessible Kindle App I feel as though Amazon and Kindle developers made a good faith effort in hopes that we, the organized blind, would recognize their commitment to us, and all print impaired, and be willing to provide constructive feedback to aid in improvement and future development.