Accessible e-Readers: Sourcing an accessible e-reader

  • Author: Tim Lohman
  • Date: 20 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 final part of our four-part series, Ken discusses sourcing an accessible e-reader, and the importance of the Readium Project.  Read part one of this series on the major accessibility issues related to e-readers, part two on accessibility issues of specific e-readers, and part three on e-book formats.

Access iQ: How can people best source an accessible e-reader?

Ken Petri: It may sound silly, but I actually think the decision to choose an e-book reader is a pretty significant one. I have hit dead ends after a while with certain e-readers, and transitioning to a new reader (or e-reading platform, even) can be difficult and frustrating. Though it is certainly possible to get your books “out” of one system and into another, doing so can be somewhat technical — and may break copyright restrictions. At minimum, switching will involve research and time.

Selection of an e-reader depends on the disability. I would advise trying to arrange test drives of various readers and platforms before settling. The person trying to make a decision about an e-book reader ought to consider what functionality is absolutely required and what other features will be of benefit, in relation to his disability. 

For instance, if the user needs only TTS synchronised highlighting playback, there are a number of solid choices. Google Play Books on Android could be a good choice, since it offers TTS synchronised highlighting and Play Books also syncs user notes and highlights with the browser version on your PC or Mac. It could make a great study tool. (Note that the iOS version is not as feature rich as the Android version — no TTS synchronised highlighting, for example).

For blind users, at this point, an iOS device along with a PC makes a good combination and opens up many e-reading possibilities. Though this will certainly upset some ardent Android fans, my advice to screen reader-reliant users would be to stick with iOS for now, if you are in the market for a mobile reader. It certainly wouldn't hurt to spend some time with the Kindle Fire HDX. It is the most accessible mainstream implementation of Android for e-reading that I have seen. But I'm afraid the iOS/VoiceOver combination just performs better for reading and offers better access to a wider range of accessible apps, beyond e-readers. Kindle on iOS is simply a great mainstream e-book reader. Up until last August, iOS's Kindle implementation was a black box — effectively dead to the screen reader. And then, poof! great access and a colossal selection of books, to boot, became available over night.

But on iOS for blind access it doesn't end with Kindle. The Apple iBooks app is top notch and, right now at least, offers one of the fullest implementations of EPUB 3 on mobile. And then there is Voice Dream. Voice Dream will allow you to load non-DRM'ed books you might have in Dropbox or Google Drive, and you can save out all of your note-taking to these services as well. Voice Dream's performance with VoiceOver is amazing, frankly. Better than anything else I have encountered. It has the easiest to use implementation for note-taking and highlighting of any of the readers on iOS. Voice Dream can extract text from a large variety of formats, including EPUB, PDF, and Word DOC. Voice Dream also has TTS synchronised highlighting and a distraction-free/focused-reading mode that could benefit users with non-vision related print disabilities. The only drawback to Voice Dream is that, with the exception of PDFs, it extracts text from books and reflows it without any of the formatting of the original book. It also cannot currently render the more sophisticated parts of EPUB 3, such as video, audio, or math. It can interact with PDF either in original or reflowed format, however.  If Voice Dream were able to render all of EPUB 3 and handle voicing of MathML (which the iOS version of Safari can do pretty decently now) then we would be very close to an ideal e-reader for mobile.

Toward the end of our CSUN presentation we discussed the VitalSource Bookshelf e-reader. Ingram VitalSource is distributor of digital academic books from a variety of publishers. VitalSource Bookshelf e-reader is fully accessible by keyboard alone and screen readers on both Mac and PC. It also renders much of EPUB 3, including SVG, MathML, video and audio. It uses Internet Explorer for rendering on Windows, and so with newer versions of IE the HTML5 video from EPUB 3 books will render with captions. VitalSource is primarily designed to be an academic book reader. Users can order textbooks through the VitalSource bookstore and read them with the Bookshelf reader. But it is also possible to "side-load" EPUB 2 and EPUB 3 books. The primary difference between side-loaded and purchased books is that for purchased books the note-taking and text highlighting features are enabled. Setting highlights and taking notes in VitalSource is accessible to the keyboard and screen reader. It is unfortunate that the user does not have access to these features for her own side-loaded books. But, nevertheless, for a mainstream academic-focused reader, VitalSource Bookshelf has very good accessibility.

What is the Readium Project and why is it important?

Ken Petri: The Readium Project is sponsored by the IDPF, the International Digital Publishing Forum, which authored and maintains EPUB 3 and related specifications. Readium is also an EPUB 3 e-book reader.

Initially, the reader was solely an extension for the Google Chrome web browser, but over the last year or so the project announced development of a JavaScript library and SDK (software development kit). These would allow the Readium engine to render all of the EPUB 3 specification on a very wide variety of platforms, both web-based and installed.

The Readium reader for Chrome is not screen reader or keyboard accessible. The overt goal of Readium is to allow a wide variety of vendors to adopt EPUB 3 and have it render equally in all cases. Accessibility is clearly a key consideration overall, however. A number of developers on Readium are associated with the DAISY Consortium or have other clear investments in accessibility, and accessibility features prominently in the project goals (see the section on “Usability” in the Readium Project Goals). The Readium e-reader in Chrome already has excellent support for EPUB 3 Media Overlays (recorded audio synchronised read-along of text).

People should keep apprised of Readium and its various projects. Vendor and publisher interest in it is broad. The promise, which seems like it should be realised fairly soon (and on many platforms), is full disability access to media- and function-rich EPUB 3 books. To my knowledge there has never been an e-book reader reference platform project analogous to Readium. It demonstrates not only a widespread desire for distribution of and access to rich electronic books but also signals serious publisher and reading-platform maker commitment to delivery of fully accessible, rich reading experiences.