Blog Date: 
Friday, May 3, 2013
Amy Mason

Hip Hip Hooray! There shall be joy and dancing in the streets.  It finally happened!  Without a word to anyone, Amazon quietly slipped an update to their Kindle app into the app store.   This was not left unnoticed for long.  CNET, Engadget, and PC Magazine, have all put in their two cents, but now’s the real question.  Considering the “Accessibility” features in the Kindle Fire, the A team was understandably skeptical when we heard this announcement. That being the case, what’s a better way to learn about a free app than to download it, and play?

Grading Criteria

Amazon has been working very hard lately to get their books into the classroom.  Therefore, it seems especially fitting to me to give them a bit of a test, and put the grades up for all to see. Therefore, I will be grading the Amazon app according to the fairly recognizable scale that many of us used in school.  Points will be deducted for features that do not work as they ought to, or those that have not been implemented accessibly at all.  Each category will start at 100% and grades will be averaged at the end.  Double weight will be awarded to the most important categories for successful use in the classroom.  Severity of impact upon the reader will determine how many points are lost for any given failing.
•    F: 0-59%
•    D: 60-69%
•    C: 70-79%
•    B: 80-89%
•    A: 90-100%
So let’s get started then, shall we?  We will be grading against what is possible for sighted users, as well as against the capabilities of other accessible eReading platforms.  Really each grade will only be a bullet point, unless of course further explanation is required.  One further note before we get started.  None of the current options would pass my test below with a perfect grade.  Several eReading platforms would pass, but no one has all the answers yet.    


General Layout (Double): 98%

Does the app layout make sense?


Yes. Full marks. The app is easy to navigate.

Are all buttons clearly labeled and accessible to the user?



Can a user get the information they need in the library to download and access books? -2 pts.

Blind users are not given information on how far they are into a book, which is available to sighted Kindle users.  It doesn’t terribly affect the enjoyment or usefulness of the app, and the information can be gleaned from the menus inside of the book, so the points removed will be minimal, however, this is information that some users may want to have.


How about using menus to change font and other reading options?  

Full Marks.  This matters because if a user is using speech, they may want to decrease font size to hear page turn noises as little as possible, or increase font size to have a more granular Braille reading experience (more on this later).  


Basic Reading (Double): 93%

These are the minimum criteria for reading a book, primarily for pleasure.  


Can a user navigate text easily including read continuously, move by pages, lines, characters and words?  



Move backward and forward in the text?



Bookmark their place and easily access bookmarks again?



Jump between chapters? -7 pts.

A user ought to be able to at the very minimum use the table of contents in a book to move from one chapter to the next, but many Kindle books do not offer a table of contents, and inline links (which often replace a properly coded table of contents) are not accessible to blind users.


Academic Reading (Double): 55%

Academic reading is more involved and active.  It requires a more stringent level of interaction with the text than regular reading and thus has further requirements that must be considered.  


Can a user select text? -30 pts.  

Amazon has implemented a method for selecting text, but it is extremely buggy.  A user is expected to double-tap and hold to select text on the page, however this method is at best deeply flawed, and at worst unusable.   When a user attempts to double-tap and hold to select text, about one third of the time, the page changes, one third of the time the menus appear, and the final third a word is selected.  It is almost never the word that the VoiceOver cursor is highlighting.  It is usually a word on the same line, but if a user has a page full of text, it can be difficult, if not impossible to then find the actual word they wished to select.  Once a first word is selected, using selections is handled quite cleverly in that it is possible to move the beginning and end of the selection to add to it or shrink it,  


Can a user take notes in the text? -10 pts.

Yes, if they are able to select it.  The note taking feature works, and leaves a note in the list of associated information in the “Go To” menu, however, a blind user who is later reading the text will not be aware the note is actively there.  It is understandable that a heavily annotated text might be annoying to read, but this could be fixed for both blind and sighted users by offering a “clean” view, and an “annotated” view which would include a user’s notes and highlights, and speak them to the blind user as they come across them.  


Can a user access the dictionary?

Yes, but only if they can select the word they want to view.


Can a user highlight important or interesting passages for easy later retrieval? -10 pts.

The highlights are available to a blind user in the “Go To” menu, but not announced inline.


Can a user access endnotes and footnotes? -20 pts.

No, this is not possible, just like other links in the text; this is unavailable to blind users.  


Can a user jump to a certain page in the text?

Yes, if the book includes page numbers.  Not all Kindle books do.


Can a user access X-Ray and Book Extras? +25 Bonus points.

X-ray and Book Extras are features that are available only from Kindle books, and can be used to give information on the background of a book. They include glossary terms, major characters, possibly major locations and other important information about the book.  This makes up partially for no access to end and foot notes, and is a feature that is presently not available through other vendors.  Because these features are accessible and very useful to students, Amazon earns some points back here. Disclaimer: this feature was tested with text-based content only, no graphics or interactive content were encountered


Braille Support (double): 25%

Disclaimer: Braille was tested on the iPad 2 with the BrailleEDGE.  Your results may vary, in fact, I hope they do.
Braille is an important criterion in the academic environment as well as in leisure reading.  Furthermore, it is the only way that deaf-blind users will have access to Kindle books, therefore it receives double weight.


Can the text be read with Braille? -20 pts.

Yes, sometimes.  However it is fully possible for a Braille user to crash the access to Braille in the app by trying to move to the top or bottom of a page.  If this is attempted, a user may find that the Braille display no longer pans, and the only way they will get Braille function back in the Kindle app is to close the book they are reading (using the screen) and open a new book.  Turning pages also seems to remedy the behavior, though strangely the Braille is about a page behind the voice if speech has not been silenced.


Can the text be navigated with Braille with the same granularity as with speech? -15 pts.

No.  When a Braille display is paired, it sees the entire page as a single chunk of text.  Therefore, a Braille user can turn pages, and begin at the top of each page, however, they are unable to navigate through the page using rotor commands available to speech users, and thus lose the ability to move by words and lines.  


Can app menus be controlled using only a Braille display? -25 pts.

No. During our testing, the Braille display and speech would lock up when trying to navigate through menus on an iPad 2.  If it is possible to use menus successfully with Braille, it is buggy at least on some devices and can get users locked into a state they cannot exit without crashing the app. Therefore, deaf-blind users may not be able to access the Kindle app.


Can users select text with Braille? -15 pts.

No, there is no equivalent for double-tap and hold on the Braille display so all commands that require this gesture are not going to work.


Content: 100%

No requirements here really. Kindle has the largest library out there. It’s why we’ve all been champing at the bit to get to it for so very long.


Ecosystem: 85%

Are social networking features such as sharing quotes and ratings of books accessible?
Yes. Though some require the ability to select text first.


Is Whispersync and Whispersync for Voice accessible?

Unknown as this has not been adequately tested.  (It is likely though because the dialog that offers to move a user to the latest part of the book in the inaccessible versions of the app actually were accessible iOS dialogs.)   Whispersync allows a user to sync their bookmarks, notes and location in a book to other devices and Whispersync for Voice syncs a user’s location in an Audible book with their location in a text book.  


Is buying books accessible? -5 pts.

Book buying is as accessible as buying any other product on Amazon, so generally usable, but not fully accessible when using standard web accessibility guidelines.  The process may be difficult for some web users.


Cross-platform use: -10 pts.

Amazon is promising improvements in this area, however, until more apps and devices are released, and firmware  for other Kindle devices is updated, iOS is really far and away, the most accessible Amazon Kindle platform.



Amazon has made a good start, but with a grade of (…wait, let me pull out my calculator here…) 73% (a low C) they still have some serious work to do to come up to the standard of accessibility we hope to see for our students.  Do I recommend using it? Yes… mostly… if you aren’t doing anything too serious with it, and if the Braille is not going to be a major concern. It’s got a pleasure reading grade of 77% a high C, and that would be a fair bit higher if Braille was working properly. This puts it in a similar class as the Nook app which I’ve used to read a novel or two.  (Nook’s Braille is limited, but it is less likely to crack under the pressure than the Kindle app’s.  Would I want my textbooks on it, for my next class, well no, nor would I want to use it to read my Kindle books in Braille, with all the difficulties encountered while testing, but for picking up a novel with speech, I’d say give it a go.