This article, by Char Booth, originally appeared on the Library Journal site on 8/5/10. If you’re publishing for the Kindle and haven’t enabled text-to-speech, this article just might change your mind.
If digital literacy is exploding, the visually disabled are taking the shrapnel. I would wager that most librarians consider ourselves committed to accessibility and make individual and organizational efforts to comply with (and often exceed) the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in our buildings and the Rehabilitation Act Section 508 standards on our websites. We may not, however, have had the sobering experience of trying to access an ebook or e-journal using screen-reading software or other assistive technology. Despite our best intentions, this limited insight can lead us unwittingly to collection development and web design decisions that make digital literacy far more difficult for the print disabled.
Over the past year, I’ve been working closely with Lucy Greco, a colleague and disability advocate at the University of California-Berkeley (UC-B). Lucy, who has been blind from birth, has transformed my understanding of the word access. Not only do librarians need to understand the accessibility front of the ebook wars, we have the responsibility to embrace our advocacy role in shaping its outcome. As one of the few public sector agencies charged with recognizing the access rights of all, libraries must collectively examine how we can steer the e-text trajectory-from ebooks to e-journals to any other format-in a more universally usable direction.
Ebooks and DRM
Lucy is partial to a few sayings that have helped me understand the e-text accessibility paradox. The first is that "ebooks were created by the blind, then made inaccessible by the sighted."
Online text formats like DAISY and EPUB were pioneered in part by the accessibility movement as an alternative to expensive and cumbersome Braille texts. As ebooks have gained popularity, however, digital text became inexorably less accessible as for-profit readers like the Kindle and Sony Reader muscled onto the scene. A patina of digital rights management (DRM) has been added in order to protect the intellectual property of vendors, contrary to the open and accessible orientation libraries have long held toward literacy and learning.
Device- and interface-specific ebooks are often "locked down" to other readers, meaning that by default they block attempts to be read by JAWS and other screen-reading software. The Kindle—still the dominant hardware ereader—has text-to-speech capability, but its speech menus remain inaccessible despite a 2009 promise from Amazon. [The Kindle 3, announced last week, has addressed this particular flaw.—Ed.] Hence the recent Department of Justice letter to college presidents warning against inaccessible emerging technology use and a suit brought by the National Federation for the Blind against Arizona State University’s Kindle DX pilot.
Dollars = leverage