Future Reflections Special Issue: Technology
by Amy Mason
Reprinted from the Braille Monitor, January 2012, Volume 55, No. 1
From the Editor: Electronic books, or e-books, promise to bring the blind community equal access to reading matter for the first time in history. Yet, in many cases, a gap yawns between promise and reality. In this article, Amy Mason treats us to a hard-hitting evaluation of the e-book readers currently on the market. Amy is a member of the Access Technology Team at the National Center for the Blind in Baltimore. Among her many responsibilities, she staffs the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind.
E-books are an extremely popular topic these days. Ever since Amazon introduced the Kindle and built the first really successful mainstream e-book reader, more and more people are talking about, buying, and using e-books. E-books are produced in several formats on a number of competing platforms at varying prices. Readers use them for many purposes: leisure, education, reference, and work.
E-books are an especially exciting development for print-disabled and blind readers because their properties make them ideal for finding alternative forms of access. When an e-book is presented in an accessible format on an accessible e-book reader, the user can choose to read the book using text-to-speech, Braille, or magnification. Furthermore, accessible e-books in an open market benefit everyone. Publishers gain access to an otherwise untapped revenue stream--those who cannot access traditional print materials. The general public gains access to books that are even more flexible and feature-rich than they were before, while blind and other print-disabled users, for the first time in history, gain access to the same books and publications at the same price and at the same time as the rest of society.
Unfortunately, the landscape of e-book reading technology is littered with hundreds of combinations of file formats, devices, and platforms. These competing platforms and devices include varying levels of accessibility and different methods of access. To add to the confusion, some sites for purchasing e-books are less than forthcoming in mentioning features that might affect a book's accessibility, so it is difficult to find the best solution.
In this article we will look at several of the major e-book-reading platforms, their accessibility features, major drawbacks, and other pertinent information, so that users can make informed choices about what platforms and file types are likely to be of most use to them.
Because of the complexity of the current e-book-reading landscape, this article will focus on dedicated hardware devices: Apple iOS software, Mac, and Windows PC support. None of the tested e-book readers on the Android platform at the time of testing were accessible. Windows Phone 7 doesn't contain support for access technology at this time, and Symbian phones are becoming difficult to purchase since they are no longer manufactured. Therefore, these platforms are ill-suited to comparison in this article.
Blio is a fairly new e-book technology. It was created by KNFB Reading Technologies to provide e-books that are visually appealing; laid out like their print counterparts; and, most excitingly, accessible to screen-access technology. The Blio platform has the backing of Baker and Taylor, one of the largest e-book publishers in the market, and it already has a large collection of materials in many areas of interest. Furthermore, on small-screen iOS devices the VoiceOver experience is fairly pleasant. It is possible to read by line, by word, or by character; to jump to different chapters and pages; and to read continuously or page by page. Finally, the Blio iOS e-book reader allows reading with a Bluetooth Braille display.
Unfortunately, this is where the joys of using Blio end. While well-intentioned and technologically impressive, Blio seems to have gotten so wrapped up in the final product and its visual presentation that many accessibility details have been overlooked or poorly implemented. For instance, for the PC, Blio's website mentions the system requirements for running the program (Windows XP SP3 or newer and JAWS versions 11 or newer). It does not mention that running Blio with JAWS requires Windows 7. Next, once it is up and running on Windows, Blio works well until the user has a reason to tab away from its window, the computer goes to standby, or the program loses focus. After any of these common events, it is no longer possible to read the text by any element larger than word by word. If the user attempts to do so, the program skips about half of the words on the page. The only fix we found in testing the program was to reset the computer, since restarting JAWS and Blio is not enough to cause the program to act correctly. Moreover, changing the book view has been known to cause the program to crash. Last of all, there appears to be a bug in the iPad version of the software which causes it to try to read an entire page of text when the user attempts to read by line. Thus, although Blio has a good start, its producer still has a fair distance to go before the product is truly a trustworthy solution.
The CourseSmart e-book provider allows users to access textbooks through an online web portal that can be successfully navigated either by the Mac or the PC. It is built on a rental model, which means that books from the system are available to students for either 180 or 360 days continuously. Books cost about 50 percent of the price of their print versions. A blind software user has to contact the CourseSmart organization's support team and ask for the accessible reader to be enabled. Once this task is completed, it is possible to move through the text using standard navigation commands supplied by the screen reader. The text is presented in a page-by-page layout, meaning that the user sits at the computer and flips pages. The navigation is fairly well laid out, and, since the CourseSmart reader exposes the text to the screen-access software being used, it is possible to navigate character by character, word by word, line by line, and so forth. Furthermore, the layout of the system allows for movement by chapter or by jumping to specific pages in the text. Since it is exposing text to the screen reader directly, CourseSmart also allows the use of a refreshable Braille display.
To make CourseSmart fully accessible, developers can make improvements in two areas. First, not all of CourseSmart's selections are marked up for navigation. We did not test CourseSmart's ability to move through a marked-up text because the textbooks we acquired for this project did not contain the markup. It is possible to request that a title be marked appropriately and to have it available within as little as two weeks. Unfortunately, a two-week delay could put students at a severe disadvantage. Second, the CourseSmart app for iOS is not accessible, though a student can get around this by using the website with the Safari browser on iOS devices. CourseSmart is a fairly usable system that could be spectacular if these problems are rectified.
EPUB is one of the most widely known and used formats for providing e-books. It was developed by the International Digital Publishing Forum to provide a reflowable, platform-independent electronic book. It can come in several different variants that provide various levels of accessibility, from completely accessible without restriction to completely inaccessible. The EPUB format is based on several web formats that are accessible in large part.
A major problem with EPUB is the current lack of support of mathematical formulas in an accessible format, which often allows publishers to print math in the form of graphics on the page instead of readable and searchable text. A more far-reaching problem arises from digital rights management (DRM) schemes that force books to be read on inaccessible platforms or keep texts from being searched or read aloud.
Unprotected EPUB files are accessible primarily because they are built to be navigated very much like HTML documents. They contain similar structural elements, and, if the reader being used is accessible, the book is likely to be accessible as well, unless it contains inaccessible charts, mathematical formulas, or illustrations.
EPUB's popularity is likely to continue to grow even further with the forthcoming EPUB version 3. EPUB 3 will include a number of enhancements such as the ability to embed video and audio directly into the publication, sync audio to on-screen text, support advanced document layouts, and enhance accessibility of EPUB documents. This is very good news for blind e-book readers. Some of the most interesting changes that affect accessibility for blind users include formal support for MathML (a mark-up language that makes it possible to represent complex mathematical formulas on screen and with screen-access software), support for pronunciation lists within EPUB to assist with using the file with text-to-speech, integration of key DAISY components, and support for multiple style sheets to improve the reading experience, no matter what device is being used.
Several mainstream and blindness-specific book-reading platforms will read unprotected EPUB files. Some of the more accessible mainstream options include Google Books (on the desktop with Firefox and JAWS for Windows, VoiceOver and Safari on the Mac, and the app for iOS), the Ibis reader for desktop and mobile devices capable of rendering HTML 5 webpages, and iBooks on iOS devices.
Several forms of protected EPUB are on the market from myriad sellers, but some of the most widely circulated are encoded with a protection scheme from Adobe Systems. E-books.com, Google Books, Kobo, and OverDrive sell or lend EPUB files that have been protected by this scheme and are tied to specific reading platforms, many of which are completely inaccessible, such as the hardware-based Sony Reader. On the PC or Mac, users can gain limited access to these books with the Adobe Digital Editions platform, but they have to download the version 1.8 preview from Adobe Labs instead of the mainstream version (1.7.1).
This is not the only platform limitation, however. The biggest problems revealed in our most recent tests were a lack of granular navigation and the general lack of robustness of the software on both the PC and the Mac. A user is limited to navigating page by page on the Mac. On the PC it's difficult to tell whether the navigation by character, word, and line was intentional or caused by instabilities in the software, because the navigation worked when a document was opened once but not the next time. It was possible to read these books with Braille display support, but the text would often appear to a Braille reader to be highlighted, whether or not it actually appeared that way on screen. The software was generally buggy, crashing several times while being tested. Perhaps most frustrating for PC users, the program works only with version 12 of JAWS. Older versions of JAWS as well as other screen readers for Windows cannot access the text on screen, so a number of users are left without even the rudimentary accessibility that Adobe Digital Editions provides.
While we are discussing the Adobe platform, it is important to look at the OverDrive Media Console. OverDrive is a platform used by a large number of libraries around the country to check out digital books to patrons. The OverDrive Media Console is the primary medium for accessing these files on mobile devices such as the iDevices. The news about this platform is mixed. It is important to note that OverDrive's program is not fully accessible. Generally it can be worked around if a user is patient and not too picky about the level of control. For instance, there is a problem with the pop-up dialogs. The program will allow a user to use VoiceOver to read the answers of the dialog but not the question being asked. For instance, in a dialog that reads, "This program is not linked to an Adobe account," with buttons for signing in and creating a new account, the only information passed to VoiceOver is that on the buttons, so the dialog reads, "Sign up" and "Sign in with Adobe ID." The messages for accessing download information also are not all passed to VoiceOver, so it is difficult to get accurate information about the state of the files being downloaded.
After the user has downloaded a book and has been signed in to Adobe, it is possible to open the book, which offers a screenful of text between a list of settings on top and a page-turning tool and status messages on the bottom. When tested, it is possible to touch a section of text on the screen and start reading from that point on the iPad and iPod Touch. However, the screen does not update as VoiceOver reads past what is available visibly on screen. This means that, although users can start reading and even read line by line and character by character, if they simply explore, they will land back on the visually displayed text, even if that is several pages behind where they are in the book.
It is also very difficult to get the OverDrive reader to respond to attempts to change the page, so moving by page to get back to where the user was is not a simple process, and seemed to occur more by accident than by design. Also, although this platform has not been tested with the iPhone 4S, each iPhone 4 that was tested crashed when attempts were made to use VoiceOver to read an EPUB book in the OverDrive Console.
Finally, it should be noted that OverDrive also provides functionality for receiving and reading audio books through the library lending system. These are Windows Media Player files with embedded DRM, which ties them to the player or to Windows Media on the PC. Although the same problems with the program's main interface still exist, it is possible to use and enjoy these audio books once one is past the unlabeled dialog boxes.
Google Books is one of the most interesting options on this list. With over three million books in the public domain and for purchase, Google has one of the largest collections of books available. This number is impressive, but it comes with some limitations of which the user should be aware. Many Google Books offerings are scanned images of the text only, so these titles will not be accessible to any screen reader. If they are downloaded, they come in the form of inaccessible PDFs. Other books, however, are available from Google labeled as "reflowable text." Once again, these are EPUB files. Some are in the public domain and contain no digital rights management, but those that are not in the public domain are protected with the Adobe Digital Editions DRM. This is not a barrier to reading the books from Google Books on the Google Books app or in a browser, but, if users wish to download the materials, they are tied to using Adobe Digital Editions to access this type of file.
The Google Books reading experience is certainly better than a number of other options on this list, but a user has to play by Google's rules to get the system to work, and some accessibility barriers to purchasing books from the website still exist. Users can browse and purchase books with screen-access software, but at the time of this writing they will find one major barrier to independent book purchase. Google has a list of environments the book is suited to and a second list that contains information on whether the book is reflowable text or scanned images, and all book titles list this information. Next to these items on the screen is either a green checkmark or a red X. These very important graphics absolutely cannot be detected or read by screen-access software, which makes it impossible to determine whether a book is an accessible file or not without sighted assistance.
If users surmount this hurdle, they will find that they can read their purchases or download them in the e-book reader that Google provides on its website, if they are using Firefox and JAWS on a PC, Safari and VoiceOver on a Mac, or an iOS device and the Google Books app with VoiceOver. If these conditions are met, it is possible to use the navigation in a book to move by chapters or sections and read by page, line, word, character, or any other increment supported by the screen-access software. It is possible to use a supported Braille display in all of these environments as well. The system does require a fair amount of interaction from the user. The pages of text seem to be rather small, meaning that the user is fairly regularly turning pages to continue reading. This is more of an inconvenience than a deal-breaker, and it seems to be in the nature of most commercial e-book-reading systems.
Apple's iBooks is a platform for reading EPUB files on the iOS family of devices: iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch. It has a smaller library than those of some of the other reading devices mentioned in this article, and it uses its own proprietary DRM scheme, which means that you have to read iBooks with the iBooks reader. Since this has not been made available to desktop users on either Windows or the Mac, users must own an iOS device to get anything out of the service. This said, iBooks is one of the most accessible options available for reading commercial e-books today. It is possible to move by character, word, line, paragraph, or page by using Apple's VoiceOver package. Furthermore, though its presentation is a little awkward, it is possible to read iBooks with a refreshable Bluetooth Braille display. It is also possible to search text and navigate by elements such as headings and links when they appear in the text. Finally, full navigation of the text is possible in all of the iBooks which can be purchased from the iTunes store.
The Barnes and Noble Nook is built primarily on EPUB technology but uses another unique DRM scheme. At this time very little can be said about the Nook because its bookstore, desktop software, mobile software, and dedicated hardware-reading devices are all inaccessible to blind users.
The Amazon Kindle has a large library of materials, a well-designed hardware reader, wide hardware availability, and a terrible record on accessibility. Of the large number of Kindle platforms and dedicated devices, only a small fraction have any accessibility features that make them even remotely usable by blind readers. The Kindle 3 hardware reader and Kindle for PC with accessibility plugin (another specialized download) are the only confirmed options for reading Kindle materials with text-to-speech. Kindle on iOS and Mac is inaccessible to VoiceOver. Older Kindle hardware readers do not allow for text-to-speech control of the menus, and in the case of the least expensive Kindle ($79) or the recently released Kindle Fire, there are no accessibility features whatsoever. Text-to-speech can be turned off by the publisher on the Kindle 3, so not even all content can be accessed. The web browser and purchase functions are also not accessible on this device. Reading is limited to start/stop, the ability of the device to remember where you stopped, and basic speed controls. It is not possible to go back in the text, spell words, read by sentence, search, or otherwise control the voice being used. Finally, because text-to-speech is considered an experimental feature, it may be discontinued later by Amazon.
The Amazon Kindle for PC provides a slightly better experience, insofar as it is possible to go forward and backward in a book, read continuously or by page, and read sentences. Amazon has chosen to allow JAWS and NVDA users to navigate menus with the screen reader, but it has implemented its own commands and voice to read the actual text on the screen. This means that there is no Braille support for the experience, and users are unable to read in smaller increments than by sentence. Thus, although some rudimentary access to Kindle books is available, it is not nearly enough to use the books for anything but the most casual reading.
Adobe's PDF is a fairly common format for technical materials such as manuals and heavily formatted materials such as textbooks. It is used for other types of portable documents more than it is for books, but it certainly has a presence on the e-book scene. Once again, these files can be anything from perfectly accessible to completely inaccessible. In the case of PDF, however, the reasons are different. Although DRMed PDFs exist, they are not prevalent and thus are not a barrier to access in most situations. Inaccessible PDFs often result from scanning the text of a book without performing optical character recognition on the scanned images or from failing to consider the way that a book will flow when presented by a screen reader. Unfortunately, it is difficult to determine how a given PDF will function until you actually try to use it.
Several platforms are available for accessing PDF with differing levels of accessibility and user-friendliness. On the PC, PDFs can be accessed by using Adobe's Acrobat Reader. If the book is well marked up and does not consist simply of images of the text, the navigational experience can be as pleasant as reading a well-made HTML webpage or Word document. On the Mac, Apple's PDF viewer will expose the text for navigation and search, but it does not recognize navigational elements such as headings that are recognized on the PC. On iOS devices, PDFs can be accessed using iBooks, but only to a limited extent. The PDF document allows for only page-by-page navigation. This is bearable for some tasks but can be a deal-breaker if users are working with texts that require careful scrutiny, if they need to read specific passages in greater detail, or if they must have spelling information.
In an ideal world, all the major e-book technologies would be accessible to print-disabled and blind users. These book platforms would allow users to browse, purchase, and consume content in the most comfortable and appropriate manner for the user's needs and the type of content consumed. All e-book platforms fall short of this laudable goal. Some options work fairly well and allow reasonable access to text, but all of the platforms discussed in this article need improvement.
E-book platform publishers can do a number of things to improve the experience for print-disabled readers, several of which would not be difficult to implement. First, although it is understandable that books that were created inaccessible cannot be transformed overnight, it should be a long-term goal to migrate to accessible technologies, and in the short term to ensure that books are clearly marked if they are image only or otherwise inaccessible in their present condition. Second, it is imperative that the book-purchase model allow users to buy books independently from whatever portal the platform uses.
Once the user has a book, the e-book reader being used should be built to comply with the standards of the operating system it sits within. It should allow screen access and magnification software to access the book player's controls and the text inside the book. If this occurs, the user will be able to read the text in the most comfortable and robust way for the text at hand, whether magnifying a chart, reading computer commands in Braille, or checking the spelling of an author's name so that the user can purchase the next book in the series.
When dedicated devices are created, the creator should ensure that users have a method for turning on any accessibility feature independently. Furthermore, the device's access software should be robust enough to work reliably and allow meaningful interaction with the text at the character, word, line, paragraph, section, page, and chapter levels, as well as providing access to any other features of the device available to print users. It would be best if book-reading platforms would allow for continuous as well as paginated reading; they both have advantages for different reading styles and materials. Allowing for highlighting of words as they are read aloud could also help people learning to read in print for the first time or for those attempting to learn other languages or for those with some learning disabilities.
Users of e-readers must have access to the tools and features that make e-readers useful to print readers. For instance, search, highlight, annotate, and bookmark text are generally standard features of e-reading platforms, and they need to be available to blind users. Finally, if at all possible, e-book creators need to do away with special accessible versions of their software. Instead, accessibility changes should be rolled into the main program. If for some reason the program needs to be specially configured, installed differently, or used differently, the necessary commands to get the program running successfully should be available from the page where the e-book reader is acquired by users who are not print-disabled.
E-books on the open market are a fascinating and exciting development when they are implemented accessibly. They allow blind and print-disabled users to read unheard-of amounts of content at the same time, price, and convenience as their print-reading peers, if the books and reading platforms are created to be accessible. Accessible e-books make it possible for print-disabled readers to enjoy a novel, get an education, advance in their careers, learn new skills, and join in all of the other activities enjoyed by the book-reading public.
It goes without saying that the world of technology is evolving from day to day, almost moment to moment. Since the original publication of this article, some interesting new developments have come to our attention. They still await our rigorous testing, but they sound promising.
1. BLIO has released an accessible reader for Android.
2. Adobe Digital Editions and and BLIO have both released new versions that claim to have improved accessibility.
3. BLIO's problems with the iPad have been resolved.