A Note of Thanks to Amazon

I just sent the following note to Amazon, and hopefully it goes to the right place. Last time I sent a note to them about Kindle, it was a lot less happy than this one.

You can send your own feedback to kindle-feedback@amazon.com . Please do, actually. Here’s mine.

Hi,

It’s been a week, and I’ve been remiss.

I’ve been remiss in expressing my sincere thanks for the accessibility improvements for blind readers that have been made in the latest version of the Kindle app for iOS. I’m sure that you’ve seen the excitement surrounding this, and I hope you’ve gotten many notes of appreciation and thanks.

Since I connected to the Internet for the first time 22 years ago (yes, really), I have seen that the Internet could,and would, afford more access to more information to people with print disabilities than we’ve ever had. This has been true, in spite of many artificial barriers that we’ve had to conquer from time to time. But even with as much access to information, not to mention pleasure reading, that we’ve had due to having open and ubiquitous access to the Internet, we knew that there was still much that was off limits to us. Now, with ebooks surpassing print books in popularity, this is a new world. The Amazon Kindle app becoming usable for print disabled iPhone users, it is safe to say without any danger of hyperbole, truly is the beginning of our information age. This is to us a bit like Gutenberg’s printing press, where we have books available to us on a scale that was absolutely unheard of two weeks ago. Even better, it is technologically possible for us to have these books in braille or synthesized speech or large print, as our needs dictate. (The high cost of braille displays is another matter that needs addressed, but I won’t address that here.)

It’s true that we want, and need, access to hardware Kindle devices, not to mention Kindle on other supported platforms, for the field to be truly level. With this recent release, I feel confident that Amazon will indeed deliver on this need. Had you asked me two weeks ago, I wouldn’t have been so confident, but I’m glad that you guys took the time to do it right, instead of hurrying to do it right now. Here’s hoping for more in this vein, although hopefully in a shorter time. I, for one, would love to whip out a Kindle full of books, although, I must admit, I’m very content with a phone full of Kindle.

If you’d like to read my thoughts on the NFB press release about the release (obviously, I have some, and they don’t seem to agree with it by much), you can do so here:
http://buddy.brannan.name/blog/2013/05/amazon-kindle-accessibility-what/

Amazon Kindle Accessibility: What?!

This week, the blind and visually impaired community got a surprise, one that we’ve been waiting for for a long time, and one that, it’s safe to say, most of us weren’t expecting. (This would be why it was a surprise, right?) Amazon announced that its Kindle app for iOS now had new accessibility features, thus making the app usable by blind and visually impaired iPhone users. They also promise improvements to accessibility on their other platforms. You can read about it at this link. I downloaded the app, with a great deal of excitement and anticipation I might add, and it appears to be everything they say it is, with access to not only the reading of books, but also highlighting, Emailing excerpts, notes, looking up words in the dictionary, and searches. In short, this app seems to have done it right, rather than doing it fast.

The day after Amazon’s announcement, I got an Email from this press release. I thought I was responding to an Email list–it was early still, and I was still waking up, but I instead seem to have Emailed instead to either the NFB’s other PR person or to the guy that runs iBooks and the Nook reader from Barnes and Noble. I think, though haven’t looked in a while, that it may well be better than KNFB’s own Blio, which should probably embarrass somebody. So, specifically, what improvements would we suggest?

In this Email, I neglected to mention Kobo or Google Play books, both of which have at least some access features, or at least, work to some extent with commending of a far inferior implementation in 2009, this current press release almost sounds angry that Amazon did anything about the problem.

I’ve played a bit with this newly accessible Kindle app, and it’s good. It was done right. Where’s the acknowledgement of that? Why commend a half-baked effort that is unsuitable for more than the most casual reading on one hand, but practically spit at a stellar example of what can be done on the other? Could it be because Amazon did it without asking for the NFB’s blessing or input first? In fact, it looks like they may not have asked for anyone’s input, as this came as a real bombshell of an announcement with no leaks.

Really, those of y’all in the national office, would a “Good work, guys, thanks” and virtual pat on the back really be that difficult? Would it hurt you so much? It would certainly do a lot to raise your PR standing in the community. Absolutely do not back away from the stance that access to Kindle on other platforms is necessary, even vital. Please don’t. Such access is critical, and we should not rest until we have it. I have no quarrel with that. But would some recognition of a good effort in which you did not have a hand really be so bad?

By way of full disclosure, I am an active member of the National Federation of the Blind. I have been one for over 20 years. Until a more effective membership organization that mirrors my own philosophy of blindness comes along, I expect to continue to be thus affiliated. That said, I fully expect that this post will not make me very popular among the leadership.

Update: The NFB’s technology center has published a review of the Kindle app, which you can read on the center’s blog. I think that the justifications for grading are fair, and I also believe the criticisms are equally fair. As I haven’t tested all these features myself, I have no reason to argue with their findings. I may well have weighted things differently, and I might have been a bit more forgiving for this being their first run at it. I may not, too. At any rate, I have no quarrel with the review, and if Amazon endeavors to improve the accessibility features they’ve implemented, we’ll all be better for it. Watch this space, I guess.

Even so, I stand by my opinion that the tone of the press release could have been more positive and supportive of these initial efforts on the iOS platform, long time in coming though they are.

Update #2: 05/07/2013:

Here’s a link to a different take on how Amazon did with implementing accessibility features. This review is much more positive, and it doesn’t seem to have run into the same problems that the NFB technology center did in their review. While some might say I’m waffling, I also have no quarrel with this review, think its points are also valid, and believe that it was conducted in good faith and as objectively as possible, excitement over access to over a million titles notwithstanding. It’s certainly possible that the reading experience differs between iPad and iPhone, where bugs may exist in one and not the other, and there may also be problems with braille display driver implementations or conflicts. I think all of us will be interested to see how more hardware combinations do with the new Kindle app.

A Call For Accessibility Commitment

I just sent the below as a follow-up to the previous correspondence with Amazon. I’ll be interested in their response.

 

For background, see correspondence with this address, below.

First, congratulations on your commendation from the National Federation Of the Blind for adding talking menus to the Kindle 3. While this is a great first step, I’d submit commendation was, perhaps, a bit premature.
This is a great first step, and there’s no denying that. However, more needs to be done, and much of it, I believe, should be able to be accomplished by firmware updates to the Kindle 3 hardware. At a minimum, all core functionality should be accessible using spoken feedback. This means the ability to browse and purchase from the Kindle ebook store, the ability to browse and select a book, and to begin reading that book. This all begins, of course, with the ability to turn on the voice guide without assistance. A reasonable stop gap measure (and I emphasize that this should not be a permanent solution) would be the ability to ask that voice guide be turned on before the unit is shipped.
Naturally, I completely understand that experimental functions such as the Web browser are less likely to receive attention, and I’m not as concerned about those. Core reading functionality being accessible is the important thing here. While it’s great to have a book read aloud, the ability to have unfamiliar words or terms spelled is essential, as is the ability to find, select, and review sections using spoken output. A straight read simply won’t be adequate for something like a college textbook.
As you are undoubtedly aware, the ability for publishers to disable text to speech is of great concern to the print disabled community. Ideally,we would like to see all books without the ability to have this important functionality disabled. If this cannot be done per individual unit, and if Amazon will not change its policy, so that all books allow text to speech to work, please at least ensure that all books with TTS disabled are designated on their purchase and information pages. I, for one, would be very upset if I bought a book and was then unable to read it. While “The publisher has asked that text to speech be disabled on this book, we apologize to our print disabled readers for their utter stupidity” would be super, I understand it is probably not practical. Still, a notice that “Text to speech is not available for this title”, noted prominently, would be sufficient, I think.
Let me stress here that I am at this time willing, able, and ready to purchase a Kindle 3, if I have some commitment from Amazon that I will be able to use its core functionality independently at some point, and that accessibility concerns are being addressed for this unit. I will add that I am willing, able, and ready to assist you in testing such accessibility improvements on the Kindle 3, should you need such a thing. As a blind computer user and technical support specialist for an assistive technology company, with over 25 years of computer use under my belt, I am happy to help you make the Kindle 3 even more useful to the print disabled community. If these concerns cannot or will not be addressed on this hardware platform and we must wait for the Kindle 4, sadly, I will not purchase a Kindle 3.
I eagerly await your response. Know that our previous correspondence, along with this letter, have been posted to my personal blog for the print disabled community to see. I’m sure we are all eager to hear that Amazon is committed to future accessibility enhancements as soon as is practical.

Amazon Responds

I just received the below Email. It sounds like Kindle might be slightly usable, but by no means does it appear to be anywhere close to being used for serious reading. It is also unclear whether one can browse the Kindle store, but it sounds like this won’t be possible.

 

Hello,

Thanks for writing to us with your comments.

Voice Guide lets you navigate your Kindle with spoken menus, selectable items, and descriptions. For example, when you open a book, Kindle speaks your current location and how far you’ve read.

Presently we don’t have the features like enabling the voice guide and TTS features without sighted assistance, navigate or read by smaller increments in text to speech, voice guide or text to speech work in the Web browser, enabling text to speech for the books which have text to speech option disabled.

I’ve sent your comments to the Kindle team for consideration. We’re regularly working on improvements to your Kindle experience. Customer feedback like yours helps us continue to improve the service we provide. 

I hope this helps. We look forward to seeing you again soon.

Did I solve your problem?

If yes, please click here:
http://www.amazon.com/rsvp-y?c=yagwhvtx3324198336

If no, please click here:
http://www.amazon.com/rsvp-n?c=yagwhvtx3324198336

Please note: this e-mail was sent from an address that cannot accept incoming e-mail. 

To contact us about an unrelated issue, please visit the Help section of our web site.

Best regards,

Madhu Y
Amazon.com
Your feedback is helping us build Earth’s Most Customer-Centric Company.
http://www.amazon.com/your-account

A Note to Amazon On Kindle 3

I just submitted the below to Amazon. I encourage others to submit their own concerns, especially for accessibility, to them as well. According to the manual, you can Email kindle@feedback@amazon.com so Email them early and often.

 

I’m very interested in the Kindle 3, but as a blind user, I have a few concerns. Before I outline those concerns, I would like to say that I, for one, am happy to purchase if Amazon can make a commitment to our community to make accessibility improvements where warranted. 

As you might suppose, my concerns directly relate to the text to speech and voice guide features:

1) Will voice guide speak as you type? Will it read options as they are navigated and selected? Can you select books with it? Documentation is definitely lacking in this area. With voice guide enabled, will it be possible to use Kindle as outlined in the rest of the manual, without looking at the screen at all?

2) Do menus wrap? Would it be possible to enable the voice guide and TTS features without sighted assistance? If not, I would recommend that it should be. 

3) With text to speech reading of Kindle ebooks, is it possible to navigate or read by smaller increments? In other words, can I navigate a book by word, or even by character? If I need to have an unfamiliar name or term spelled, is this possible? These features are essential if Kindle is to be used by a student in a classroom environment. 

4) Does voice guide or text to speech work in the Web browser? Can it be used, not only to read Web content but to navigate to that content? Is it possible to browse the Kindle store to purchase books, again, using only text to speech and voice guide? 

5) Will it be possible to enable text to speech for blind users on books where it is by default disabled? If not, is there some way to know whether a book is TTS-enabled before purchasing it? I would hate to buy a book, only to find I am unable to read it. 

In short, I would like some assurance that Amazon is working towrd real accessibility to the Kindle, and not just a token effort that amounts to little more than a toy.