Blog Date: 
Friday, December 7, 2012
Amy Mason

According to ZDNet and Engadget the Kindle Fire will be getting Explore by Touch and Voice Guide to provide accessibility features to blind and visually impaired customers.  

These features were first introduced in Google's Android, Ice Cream Sandwich operating system. (This is the basis of the OS for the Kindle Fire and Fire HD which has been heavily skinned by Amazon for the device.)  Google has since released Jelly Bean which has improved markedly on accessibility.  If this were Amazon's only weakness, an out-of-date OS, I would be disappointed, but I would understand. This is not, however, Amazon's only problem.

Their weakness instead, appears to be a disregard for the wishes of its blind consumers.  Blind people want Kindle books. We want them badly enough that I know several blind people who have chosen to buy the Kindle Keyboard, despite being unable to do anything more than start and stop text-to-speech on their books.  The PC edition (with accessibility plug-in) is slightly better.  If a user is willing to sit at a PC, they can read by navigational elements as small as a sentence at a time, and as large as a page (seriously, you have to sit at the computer and turn every page.  What a thrilling way to read a book!)  

I hear a few of you saying, "Ok, Amy, so you are upset about the past, but now Amazon is offering this additional accessibility in the Fire".  I am sorry to disappoint you, but for all intents and purposes it did not improve on their existing efforts. We purchased a Kindle Fire HD, and received it last Friday.  We read on Amazon's website that there were accessibility features, so we felt that we had to do our due diligence and test their work. First of all, when you get the device, you have to have a sighted person turn on the accessibility features because there is no way for a blind person to turn them on independently.  Secondly, access is limited to the device settings, the collection of books in a user's library, the primary navigation buttons (back, home, and more) and allowing you to start and stop text-to-speech on a book.  A sighted reader on this tablet has the capability to browse the Web, play music, play audio books, download and read magazines and newspapers, buy Android apps, read e-mail, view documents (this may be accessible, I didn't get a chance to check), browse photos, voice chat, and read books.  We are limited to access to the settings, navigating our library, and using the digitized speech equivalent of a cassette tape.  We can play and pause speech, and it will read continuously, just like on the Kindle Keyboard, but we cannot navigate accessibly.  No headings, paragraphs, pages, sentences, words or characters can be distinguished, nor can you go back accessibly. Tables of contents and social media integration are likewise unavailable to blind users.  

We were concerned by these conclusions, and decided that perhaps we were missing some details, so we called the company. (Accessibility was a very small part of the help page after all.)  We spoke with two different customer service reps, and indeed, the reps verified that yes, this is the extent of the accessibility of the device.  

It is hard to see the accessibility features in the Kindle Fire as a gesture of goodwill.  Amazon is familiar enough with what true accessibility looks like, both directly from us, from the work their competition has done, and even from the screen access packages it requires to allow a PC user to read with text to speech on a computer. It cannot claim ignorance when Google, Apple, and Microsoft all offer far more accessible devices (they all have their problems, but let's be honest, these guys are all making a legitimate effort.). Furthermore, both the iPad and the Nexus 7 are confirmed to offer accessible eReaders from other creators (several of which can be used with Braille) while no access to Kindle books is available on any of these platforms.   

Amazon needs to stop burning blind readers with these half-hearted attempts at accessibility in all versions of the Kindle, including the Fire. What is needed now is for it to implement real accessibility, rather than expecting blind readers to accept a cassette tape equivalent in an era of multi-purpose tablets.