Accessible e-Readers: Overview

  • Author: Tim Lohman
  • Date: 7 May 2014

Media Access Australia’s Access iQ spoke to Ken Petri, Program Director at The Ohio State University’s Web Accessibility Center about the accessibility issues of e-readers. Ken provided responses that follow up on his and Hadi Rangin’s presentation, ”Accessibility of Mainstream E-Readers,” from this year’s International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference (CSUN).

In this first part of a four-part series, Ken provides an overview of the major accessibility issues related to e-reader devices.

Access iQ: What are the major accessibility issues related to e-reader devices?

Ken Petri: The accessibility issues related to e-reader devices have a lot to do with what abilities you are trying to accommodate. In our presentation at CSUN we gave consideration to the functional requirements of different sorts of disabilities. We considered blind/severe vision impairment, “Low Vision,” Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing, colour deficit, motor disabilities that limit dexterity and/or reach, and cognitive/non-vision related “print disabilities.” Our list of criteria begins on slide 12 of our CSUN presentation, which is available on SlideShare. The DAISY Consortium worked with Tech For All to come up with an Accessibility Screening Methodology that has a very comprehensive list of guidelines and functional tests. We drew heavily on this work for our list of criteria. In fact, users shopping around for an e-reader should consider having a look through the criteria in the Accessibility Screen Methodology site, as these criteria are going to be influencing future e-reader categorisation/ranking work that will be done by the groups behind EPUB Test (which, by the way, is an excellent resource for evaluation of e-book reader support for EPUB 3).

In our evaluation of e-book readers, we focused on keyboard and screen reader access if the readers were PC or Mac based and on touch and screen reader access if they were mobile devices, whether dedicated e-readers or e-reader software on a mobile platform, such as Android or iOS. Can the sighted user using just the keyboard or the blind user using just a screen reader get to and interact with all of the content and interfaces items in the e-book reader? If on a touch screen device, how easy are the interactions to remember and master — and how consistent are they? Do OS interactions extend to the readers or are there new/non-standard gestures to learn? If there are physical buttons, can they be easily distinguished and activated? Beyond this, we considered an e-readers ability to play video embedded in books. Is it possible to caption the video? Are the controls accessible to the screen reader? Are the touch/click targets (buttons and other) easy to activate and do they perform reliably? Is it possible to include an audio description track with the video?

Also of major concern on all platforms is control over typography. What are the available font choices? Can the user adjust size of text and margins, kerning, word-spacing, and line height? Are there good pre-established contrast settings and/or are text and background colours customisable?

One of the biggest practical concerns for accessibility ended up for us being direct access to book text. In our opinion, the ability to directly interact with text — move by word and character, select, highlight, and take notes on precise ranges of text — is crucial for e-readers. Surprisingly few e-book readers allow this sort of access for screen reader software. But for serious reading, especially in an academic context, fine grained and predictable access to text is essential.

For users who have non-vision related reading disabilities, such as dyslexia, or who need their attention brought to individual words or need to follow along with text as it is spoken, the traditional accommodation is some implementation of TTS synchronised highlighting — words and/or sentences that are highlighted in time with text-to-speech playback. Kindle (with Audible books on the Fire HDX), Google Play Books, and Nook Study all do this and were discussed during our presentation. Of course, there are quite a few specialised e-readers that are targeted for people with disabilities that offer TTS synchronised highlighting. But we did not discuss these in any detail. Our focus was on mainstream e-book readers. Nevertheless, there are a couple of mainstream non-big name e-book readers that offer TTS synchronised highlighting — Blio on Android and PC, and Moon+ on Android, and the truly stunningly capable and versatile Voice Dream reader on iOS. (We only found out about Voice Dream after our presentation was over. But I have to say it is really fantastic — versatile and usable in a lot of contexts and amazingly accessible for all users, including VoiceOver users.)

We ended up including only one dedicated e-book reader, the Kindle Fire HDX. The Nook touch screen devices have a version of Android TalkBack installed but it feels like an afterthought; whereas, the implementation of TalkBack on the new Kindle Fire HDX for the first time opens up a dedicated Kindle device to practical usage by screen reader reliant users.

We also spent some time considering book formats. Since late 2011 we have had a mainstream, rich book format that promises to offer full accessibility in e-reading: EPUB 3.

Part two of this series will look at accessibility issues tied to specific manufacturers or e-readers.