Amazon’s Kindle Finally Speaks

By , May 15, 2013

Many blind, visually impaired and dyslexic Kindle users have been deterred by Amazon’s lack of assistive features in its software since the e-Reader’s market debut. However late in the game (six years, to be exact; the first Kindle was released in 2007), Amazon’s recent decision to join the assistive technology movement finally opened the floodgates. As of May 1, 1.8 million Kindle titles are now accessible to users with visual impairments via Apple’s comprehensive VoiceOver technology.

The Kindle’s platform is not drastically different from other devices that employ VoiceOver. Users can enjoy features that allow them to read aloud one line, word or character at a time, as well as eliminate buttons and labels that crowd the screen. Without those on-screen controls, users can use the swipe gesture to easily navigate books and menus. The platform also contains tools for highlighting, bookmarking and making notes as well as a built-in dictionary.

Additionally, the technology offers improved library book navigation and search features as well as social media sharing capabilities. Readers can copy/paste text into a Google search, though critics warn that as a web browser, the Kindle does not boast the same accessibility features that it does as an e-Reader. However, software usually contains bugs, and the major adaptations Amazon has finally made for its visually impaired readers seem to outweigh the pitfalls. (If you have a print disability check out Bookshare and its new web reader.)

Many agree that Amazon was late to the party, in that its e-Reader excluded those with visual impairments even while other products successfully branched out into those markets. Perhaps it was the protests outside Amazon headquarters in Seattle, WA by folks and Seeing Eye dogs, or the profit-slashing lawsuit discouraging Arizona State University from investing in Kindle technology for its students that pushed Amazon toward taking the leap of investing in visually-impaired customers. Most likely, the competition of similar but more accessible products is what initiated this change. For example, programs such as Blio and iBooks have had such features built in for years, gaining the endorsement of the National Federation of the Blind and revenue of many supporters.

Regardless of who or what lit the flame under Amazon, the subsequent push toward universal accessibility in its Kindle software will certainly be of benefit to many. A large attraction to this newly improved device is the robust library that is suddenly within reach of countless individuals who struggle with access. Great opportunities will subsequently present themselves to scholars, professionals and children with visual impairments; therefore, contributions toward universal design, like Amazon’s newest accessible Kindle, must always be encouraged.

Author: Suzanne Robitaille

Suzanne Robitaille is the founder of abledbody.com, a website on disability issues. She is the former assistive technology columnist for BusinessWeek.com, giving rise to her fascination with technology that helps people with disabilities surmount barriers in the workplace and life space. She is also the author of The Illustrated Guide to Assistive Technology & Devices. As a writer and blogger, Suzanne is a trusted source of disability information for The Wall Street Journal, ABC News, HealthDay, Media Post, Ability Magazine, Disaboom and more. Suzanne lost her hearing at age four and grew up profoundly deaf. In 2002 she received a cochlear implant, which she credits as "the ultimate assistive technology."