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The tale of the accessible eBook

by Adrian Higginbotham

31st March 2010

In the first of a new series of articles, technology analyst in the education sector and "geek at heart", Adrian Higginbotham, comments on a conundrum for blind people which has not yet fully been solved.
An eBook reader
My new column on Ouch! will take a monthly look at what's new in the world of technology and how it might come in useful for us disabled folk. Each month I’ll start with an in-depth look at a new innovation or development.  Then I’ll round off with recent news items that have grabbed my attention from the assistive technology arena or beyond. I can't promise it'll always be positive, but I’ll do my best.

eBook readers: Worth the wait, or are we still holding out for better access to the written word?

The eBook, as a dedicated digital book format, has been around for as long as it has been possible to buy physical books online. Digital Book Inc, launched the first 50 books in the DBF format (supplied on floppy disks) in 1993, the same year that Book Stacks Unlimited set-up the worlds' first online shop for physical books, and some two years before was unleashed on the world.

Within a year of these developments, forward thinkers like online poet Alexis Kirke were envisioning electronic paper, and wireless readers. Surprising then that it was a whole twelve years before Sony released its handheld E-book Reader device in the US in 2006 with Amazon and Bookee launching rival products the following year. In 2007-8 the rest of the world got introduced to the concept of dedicated digital reading devices, including the first E-book software for iPhone.

Since then there's been a race to improve the technology, with larger, easier to read screens, better connectivity, dedicated book stores, and a plethora of other must have features. The killer question though must surely be, have these gadgets made access to the written word easier for those of us who might struggle to see the text, hold the book, turn the page, or decode the words under our noses?
Book close up
The Amazon Kindle range of eBook readers drew some attention recently, with the addition of a "flagship" text to speech feature. This would suggest some added value for potential users with varying degrees of print impairment. However executive director of the Authors Guild, Paul Aiken, caused a stir when he said in a widely reported statement that buying a digital book doesn't buy you the right to have it read out loud.

The Authors Guild's concern was that the text to speech feature infringed their audio book rights, and let's face it, they might have a point. More often than not, blind and visually impaired people are forced to pay over the odds for the unabridged audio edition of a book, because no accessible alternative is available. So why would the Authors Guild let this cash-cow go without a fight? Amazon were consequently forced to disable text to speech on all Kindle bookstore titles, only enabling the feature with the express permission of the author.
Amazon Kindle
Facing stiff competition from the recently launched Apple iPad and iBook store, Amazon is turning the screws on authors and publishers offering the same 70% of revenue as Apple does, (double the cut currently shared by Amazon authors and publishers), but only if they agree to sell the eBook for at least 20% less than the print edition and with text to speech enabled. This may sound like good news, but the story doesn't end there.
On January 13th 2010, the US Department of Justice announced that it had reached a settlement with three universities, who have agreed that they will not purchase, recommend or promote the Kindle DX or any other E-reader unless the devices are made fully accessible to visually impaired students or that the equivalent functionality is available to them.

As rumours of a fourth such settlement storm the web, what does this mean for the Kindle and other eBook readers? Authors are under pressure to allow the use of TTS with their titles, but under the terms of the US Department of Justice Settlement, public bodies can't even recommend these eBook readers, let alone buy them. So in short, if the makers of E-book readers want US public bodies to be able to support their use they'll have to be made accessible, to Blind people at least.

If history is anything to go by then we only need look at technology giants such as Apple and Adobe for some hope. Both have put plenty of effort in to access for disabled users, partly so that they can sell in to the public sector without fear of transgressing the same legislation.
If an E-book reader is improving your access to the written word, let us know which device you are using and what it is about it that makes it better than reading a paper book in the comments section below.

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Technology News

Disabled blue badge
Just one news item this month. About a year ago, Navevo launched the BBnav, an in car satnav, which includes the locations of 20,000 blue badge parking bays and another 40,000 disability access points of interest.  However at more than twice the price of many high street models, and with less than favourable reviews from Ouch! and Ricability you may have held back from making a purchase. Well now if you have the internet knowhow, you can download the locations of thousands of blue badge parking bays, for free, directly to most off the shelf satnav systems such as the Tomtom from Data is gathered from the community of users and from other sources including local authorities, so it may not have a comprehensive list for all areas of the UK just yet, but with databases of Radar Key facilities and Shopmobility services also available for free from the same website, it's worth a punt.

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