Accessible e-Readers: Devices

  • Author: Tim Lohman
  • Date: 9 May 2014

Media Access Australia’s Access iQ spoke to Ken Petri, Program Director at Ohio State University’s Web Accessibility Center about the accessibility issues of e-readers.

In this second part of a four-part series, Ken discusses the accessibility issues tied to specific manufacturers or e-readers. Read part one on the major accessibility issues related to e-reader devices.

Access iQ: What are the accessibility issues for each e-reader?

Ken Petri: Kobo has significant work to do to make their e-book readers accessible — so much so that we left Kobo out of consideration in our evaluations for CSUN. There was a presentation by Dave Gunn of the Royal National Institute of the Blind that followed our presentation. Dave noted that Kobo did not respond to his questions about what they had planned for the future of their readers. And it was clear from his presentation that it fared the worst of the "big three" (Kobo, Nook, Kindle). Barnes and Noble and Amazon provided clear statements of investment in accessibility going forward.

Barnes and Noble has done some work with Nook on iOS. It works quite well for casual reading with VoiceOver enabled. You have control of the granularity of reading with VoiceOver, and low vision users can benefit from the ability to increase font sizes and margins and increase contrast. However, in some places Nook on iOS leaves things to be desired. For instance, it is possible to set a note on a passage, but, as soon as you place the selection on the page, you lose the ability to adjust the range of the note or highlight. In other words, it is possible to move through text in the book by line, word, or character, but as soon as you double tap to create a selection, you are thrown into the note and highlight menu. You can no longer adjust the beginning and end points of the range of text you select — if you are browsing by line, you get to select a line of text, for example, but you cannot increase or decrease the size of your selection. This lack of precision can be frustrating. For casual reading, it isn't necessarily a problem. But for academic reading, the limitation is quite restrictive.

By contrast, the ability of Kindle on iOS to select text and set highlights in a variety of colours or attach a note is very well thought through. You can tap and hold and drag your finger up or down to increase or decrease the size of the selection by lines from both the beginning and end selection indicators. You can then increase or decrease the selection by word by flicking right or left. It allows the VoiceOver user to relatively easily fine tune the boundaries of noted or highlighted text. In fact, Kindle's facility with VoiceOver is as good as or better than that of iBooks on iOS (and iBooks is certainly one of the best e-book readers on any platform).

Kindle and Nook are also on Android, of course. Accessibility on Android, for Kindle at least, is almost as good as it is on iOS. iOS is by far more fully realised from an accessibility perspective than is Android, though. Even on the Google Nexus devices, where you would expect Android accessibility should be the most refined, I have experienced lag in the TalkBack screen reader, primarily in its "Explore by Touch" implementation, and there are bugs that one encounters pretty regularly. If we are generous, we could say that Android is closing the gap somewhat, but iOS is still much more stable and usable for screen reader access on a day to day basis than is Android. That aside, Talkback accessibility with Kindle on Android is pretty solid and usable. And the new Kindle Fire HDX offers refinements to the Kindle book reader experience that help even more.

Note taking and highlighting of text is a bit more tricky and limited than on iOS (only word-by-word increases/decreases in the selected region), but it is certainly serviceable. Plus the Kindle Fire HDX has a killer feature: If there exists an audio-book version of your Kindle book, you can pay a small premium (small compared to the cost of the Audible book alone) and get synchronised highlighting of text — as the Audible book plays back in Kindle, the human narrator's voice from the Audible book is tracked via visual highlighting of the text, word-by-word in the Kindle e-book. You have the ability, also, to adjust the playback speed, and when you do so the pitch and between-word pauses adjust appropriately to minimise distortion. It's impressive: Kindle Fire has the equivalent of DAISY speech or EPUB 3 "media overlays."

Kindle and Nook also have apps for both Mac and PC. We reviewed "Nook Study," which works equally well on Mac and PC, and the PC-only "Kindle for PC with Accessibility Plugin." Both are free apps. In Kindle for PC you navigate around the e-book reader interfaces with your JAWS or NVDA screen reader, even setting bookmarks and taking notes via screen reader native feedback (though notes are applied to an entire page, rather than selection — more on that in a second). However, when you get to the book text, you read it with Kindle for PC's built in text-to-speech. Kindle for PC ships with a couple of high-quality voices (I think they are Nuance Vocalizer voices — one male, one female). The user does not have direct access to the text. She can move around by sentence, increase and decrease reading speed, and pause and start playback, but that is about all. The user cannot move by word or character and, as was mentioned, the user cannot select book text, so notes and highlights apply to full screen-fulls of text. It is pretty far from perfect, but if you consider that the app opens up to TTS the entire Amazon catalogue of books, well, it is also hard to complain.

Nook Study also goes the "built-in screen reader" route. Essentially, users will need to silence their screen readers and navigate book text and the entire Nook Study interface solely with the built-in screen reader. Screen reader-reliant users whom I know who have tried Nook Study find it very difficult to use. You can accomplish reading of a book, but screen reader users will likely be very frustrated having to leave off using their typical screen reader while they move around in the Nook Study application. It seems clear that at this stage at least Nook Study's text-to-speech is really directed at sighted users who need the extra audible feedback. Most impressive is Nook Study's ability to perform synchronised highlighting of text as it reads. It can do this for both EPUB 2 books (no EPUB 3 support beyond text rendering, at this point) and PDF books. Having TTS synchronised highlighted reading of PDF is really nice. Nook Study also has the ability to render two books side by side, allowing for easy and immediate access to two texts — it is analogous to having two books open on your table top for quick look ups or comparisons — very helpful for academic study.

With both Kindle and Nook, book reading progress syncs across platforms. So long as you are logged in to your account, you can start reading on your laptop and then pick up at the same spot on your mobile device. For both Kindle and Nook Study, notes, highlights, and bookmarks sync, so long as the books were bought through the respective bookstores. So-called "side-loaded" content does not sync.

Google Play Books is the only platform that syncs all of your notes, bookmarks, and highlights across all platforms regardless of where books were purchased. But for screen reader users, Play Books accessibility on iOS is the best of all of the platforms, and even it is not nearly as good as Nook or Kindle on iOS. For PC or Android, Google Play Books screen reader access is poor. On PC, you will be accessing books through a web browser, but the Play Books web interface apparently has not gotten much love from the Google accessibility team. On Android, you can access interface elements but are constrained to using the built-in read-aloud functionality for moving through text. There is no direct TalkBack access to book text. 

Part three will look at accessibility issues tied to specific document formats.