by Karl Belanger
From the Editor: Karl Belanger is an access technology specialist at the Jernigan Institute. He has worked for the National Federation of the Blind for more than two years, coming to this position after working as a consultant for web accessibility and access technology training. In this piece he provides some history about the accessibility of products made and sold by Amazon and chronicles significant changes in accessibility that have resulted in some very exciting products for the blind. Here is what he says:
Amazon sells a number of devices, from dedicated Kindle book readers to Fire tablets and the new and popular Alexa devices. Historically, many of these have had limited to no accessibility for blind users. Fortunately, with some involvement from the National Federation of the Blind, this is changing.
Amazon released the first E Ink Kindle in November of 2007. It was wildly popular with the sighted public, but this device did not contain any accessibility features that could be used by a blind person. It was quickly replaced by the Kindle 2 and Kindle DX, which added text-to-speech for reading of some books, but could not be independently operated by a blind person as the menus were not spoken.
Shortly after the Kindle 2’s release, the Authors Guild, which is the largest national organization representing the interests of writers, protested Amazon’s deployment of text-to-speech on the Kindle 2. Viewing this feature as a potential threat to the audiobook market, the Guild argued that the automated reading aloud of a book is a copyright infringement unless the copyright holder has specifically granted permission. Any agreement of this nature would be against the interests of blind people, since it would set a precedent equating the very different formats of text-to-speech rendering and audiobooks. The NFB worked to oppose any such restrictions and stood with Amazon in opposition to the Author’s Guild.
Amazon ended up removing text-to-speech from titles whose authors or publishers were opposed to its continued availability, but did compromise in as much as they would only turn it off if explicitly requested instead of only turning it on with the publisher’s express permission.
Around the same time, the National Federation of the Blind also began to ask for increased accessibility because Amazon had become the world’s largest eBook store and access would represent an enormous benefit for blind and otherwise print-disabled users.
In 2009 Kindle for PC with Accessibility Plugin was the first Kindle reading platform that offered enough features for blind users (and many print-disabled people) to use books from the Amazon ecosystem at all, and its features were, like those on the hardware players, very limited. Many blind people began to read novels and other non-intensive text with this platform, but it could not be used for more active reading. Books could not be read with Braille because they were self-voicing, and the smallest unit a user could navigate by was the sentence, so it was not possible to spell words or use any of the study tools available to other users.
The Kindle Keyboard (sometimes known as the Kindle 3), released in 2010, offered the first usable, if rudimentary, accessibility features for this population on an Amazon hardware device. Shopping, web browsing, and many of the reading functions were disabled, and navigation was limited to moving through the text in read-all mode or by page, but it was now at least possible for a blind person to make some use of it. The situation on Fire tablets was initially not much better. Upon launch, the first of the Android-based Fire tablets did include TalkBack, but the Fire OS had not been built to support it. Even basic features like the keyboard could not be used by a blind person when the device was first available.
Despite the marginal level of accessibility in the Kindle platform, Amazon began to push into both K-12 and higher education with their books and devices. With the devices crippled by a lack of fundamental accessibility and restrictions on the titles that could be accessed using text-to-speech, the NFB became an adversary instead of an ally to Amazon. This resulted in a number of legal challenges in schools that used Kindle materials with blind students and a protest highlighting the lack of access in Amazon’s tools at their headquarters in December of 2012.
In May of 2013, Kindle for iOS gained VoiceOver compatibility for most books and immediately became the favored platform for blind Kindle users. Likewise, Fire OS gained further accessibility support in the next couple of years, and at the time the Fire Phone was released, it had reached a point where for a time it surpassed the accessibility available on traditional Android devices.
These improvements were critical and welcomed by blind users, but Kindle continued to fall short of the robust accessibility required to read academic textbooks, and August of 2015 saw Amazon and the NFB in conflict once again. The New York City public schools were considering a large contract with Amazon based around the Kindle and Whispercast ecosystem. The National Federation of the Blind, aware that the partial accessibility of books on the platform would continue to put blind students at a serious disadvantage, prepared for a public protest of the meeting where the fate of the contract was to be decided. The buses were ready to roll, the signs were printed, and the Federation was loudly and publicly denouncing the partnership, when suddenly—at the eleventh hour—the meeting was canceled and the contract shelved.
Not long after this very public conflict, Amazon and the NFB sat down to discuss opportunities to partner on the accessibility of the Kindle platform in order to ensure that blind users could derive as much benefit from its ecosystem as sighted users. The National Federation of the Blind has been working with Amazon on the quality of their educational content ever since.
In the last year or so, we have begun to see the earliest fruits of this partnership. As of mid-2016, Amazon has begun rolling out its VoiceView screen reader to all its Kindle readers, tablets, and TV devices. It has taken steps to make its Alexa app for controlling the Echo devices mostly accessible. Finally, they retired the old “Kindle for PC with Accessibility Plugin” and have replaced it with a fully integrated version of the Kindle for PC software. This now works with NVDA to allow for much more robust accessibility in most Kindle texts.
This brings us to the present day. Amazon is still working toward further accessibility on many of their products, but we have seen such rapid improvement that it is a good time to discuss the experience a blind user can expect today.
Amazon sells four different Kindle devices, which all have some level of accessibility. These are, in ascending order of price and specifications: the Kindle, the Kindle Paperwhite, the Kindle Voyage, and the Kindle Oasis. The most basic model, just called Kindle, is relatively inexpensive and has the most basic feature set. Each additional model adds higher quality screens, better lighting, etc.
How you activate VoiceView changes somewhat depending on the model of Kindle you have. The basic Kindle uses a Bluetooth headset or speaker to transmit the audio. The Kindle Paperwhite uses an audio adaptor that plugs into the micro USB charging port. Both these methods have their benefits and drawbacks. The Bluetooth method means that the device can be charging while VoiceView is active. However, there is no immediately obvious indication how to pair a headset when a user first gets the device, without looking up instructions online. For the Paperwhite, the obvious drawback is that the audio adaptor takes up the charging port, so you will always be running the device on battery power. For the basic Kindle, to pair a headset the power button is held in for seven seconds once the Kindle has fully booted. Then, hold two fingers near the center of the screen for a little over a second. At this point the Kindle will begin trying all Bluetooth devices it can detect. Once the device you want begins to broadcast an audio message, press and hold with two fingers again until the Kindle confirms VoiceView is on. For the Paperwhite just plug headphones into the adaptor and then plug the adaptor into the Kindle, and VoiceView turns on within a second or two.
As with other mobile screen readers, the most basic gestures are flick left, right, and double-tap. Moving your finger around the screen to explore by touch is also possible. Page changing and scrolling is done with two fingers. Swiping left and right with two fingers will flip pages in a book or move through multiple pages of content in other areas. Slowly swiping up or down with two fingers will scroll through long lists or any other content that doesn’t all fit on one screen. Much like on iOS, it is possible to flick up and down to move by a selected granularity, and the gesture to change granularity is to flick up then down or down then up in one motion.
The process of reading a book on the Kindle is straightforward. From the home screen, find and double-tap on the book you want to read. If the book supports the screen reader, the book will start reading automatically. If the book is not supported, you will receive a message to this effect, but the book will still open. Once a supported book is opened, a two-finger flick down from near the top of the page will start the book in continuous reading mode. While the book is shown, it is possible to flick left or right with two fingers to go to the next or previous page. To access the reading bar where it is possible to navigate through the book or go back to your library, simply double-tap on the text while reading. It is possible to select text and highlight or add notes, but the initial step of this is somewhat clunky. To select text, move your finger around the screen to try and find the word you want to select. After this is done, double-tap and hold on the word to be selected. This will bring up an interface with buttons to adjust the selection, define a word, highlight or annotate the selected text, etc., which works quite well.
VoiceView on the Kindle has a number of limitations that significantly affect how useful the device is. There are many features that simply state they are unavailable when focusing on the button to activate them. The first instance of this a user may run across is when initially setting up the device. While signing into an account is accessible, creating an account directly on the device isn’t currently possible with VoiceView. Probably the most significant of these missing features is the Kindle FreeTime kids section. This is where a lot of content for kids resides, and parents can also set up reading lists, goals, time limits, and book restrictions for their children. Not having this feature means the Kindle readers are much less useful for a blind child whose parents want to get them into reading by using this service or to blind parents having no access to the parental controls. The Kindle’s integration with Goodreads, (an online site where people can share the books they’re reading, reading lists, and reviews of books they have read) is also disabled with VoiceView.
Amazon’s Fire tablets are a series of relatively inexpensive tablets that run Amazon’s Fire OS. The current tablets include a basic, seven-inch tablet simply called Fire, plus the Fire HD6, HD8, and HD10 which have six, eight, and ten-inch screens respectively. These tablets all come with Amazon’s VoiceView screen reader, which has a few additional features over the version on the Kindle devices.
Several different ways to activate VoiceView are available, depending on what state the tablet is in. VoiceView can always be activated under Settings > Accessibility. For a brand-new or freshly reset tablet, press and hold two fingers on the screen to start VoiceView. In addition, the user can hold down the power button from anywhere in the system until a sound is heard, then hold two fingers on the screen until VoiceView starts. To turn off VoiceView, go into Settings > Accessibility and turn it off.
VoiceView on Fire OS is very similar to the version on the Kindle, with a few added gestures. As is the case in TalkBack on Android, the angle gestures are present, such as swiping right then down to access notifications, or up then left to reach the home screen. One unique gesture that VoiceView has is the “jog wheel” gesture. To use this, swipe up then down or down then up to choose the granularity you want to use to navigate. Then, double-tap and hold, then draw a circle on the screen without lifting your finger. As you continue going around, VoiceView will scroll through items on the screen matching that granularity quite quickly. Draw a circle in the other direction to go back.
VoiceView can handle the built-in apps on the Fire tablet, plus many third-party apps such as Audible or BARD Mobile. The responsiveness is very good, though gestures need to be fairly precise; the double-tap action needs to be quick, and these default controls cannot be customized. It is possible to navigate through web pages, but the granularity options are limited to sections (what other devices call headings) and lists. Reading books works just as it does on the Kindle.
There is a version of BrailleBack currently available for the Fire tablets. This version, like the Android version, lacks many necessary features such as contracted Braille input, word wrap, and consistent and complete sets of commands across displays. Amazon has stated publicly that they are working on a better, more integrated version of Braille support, but no other details or release date have been provided as of this writing.
VoiceView and Fire OS accessibility in general do come with some limitations. As mentioned previously, the navigation in web content is extremely limited, which can make navigating larger pages awkward. Similarly, there are no headings or other navigation elements in the App Store, Kindle Store, and other stores, again making navigation difficult. The gesture recognition, especially on the lower-end devices, can also be somewhat picky, resulting in failed angle gestures, occasional misinterpreted flicks, and fast double-taps that make using the tablet occasionally frustrating.
Alexa, Amazon’s personal assistant service, is on an increasing number of devices, both from Amazon and other companies. The devices that are most associated with Alexa are the Echo devices, which will be discussed here. Alexa devices work through the Alexa app, which acts as a hub for configuring, monitoring, and adjusting aspects of your experience.
There are three Echo devices in the line. The Echo is a stand-alone speaker which was the first device to have Alexa. It has a decent speaker, 360-degree microphones, and connects to your WiFi to provide access to Alexa. The Amazon Tap is a smaller Bluetooth speaker. Until recently the Tap could not listen for the Alexa command, rather requiring a button press to cause it to listen. Now the Tap can listen, thanks to a software update. It is also the only battery-powered device in the lineup. Lastly, the Echo Dot is a much smaller version of the Echo, which is primarily designed to connect to other devices. The speaker on the Dot is fairly weak, but good enough for a small room or bedroom. All three of these devices serve different purposes depending on where and what the device is used for.
There is an Alexa app for both iOS and Android, as well as a web interface. The setup is basically the same whichever platform you’re on. In the app it opens a home screen which shows your recent requests along with more information about them. These might be additional details about sports- or weather-related requests, information on the song playing, or other possible information. The app is also where it is possible to search for and enable skills, connect smart home devices, and configure or set up other Echo devices. The app is very accessible on all platforms, though it can be laggy on mobile. There are also some unlabeled links, mostly in the section at the bottom of every screen that shows what your devices are currently playing.
To use an Echo device, simply say “Alexa,” and state your request. “Alexa, what’s the weather in Baltimore?” “Alexa, play the Nation’s Blind podcast from TuneIn.” There are a vast number of things it is possible to do with the Echo. You can ask for the info on most professional and college sports teams, play music and stations from TuneIn radio, read some Kindle books, and listen to content in your Audible library. If you are a Prime member, it is also possible to listen to music from Prime Music and even order products directly through the Echo. There is also an ever-growing number of skills which will be discussed further in the next section. If you’ve connected a smart home device, the Echo can also be used to control your thermostat, lights, connected switches, and many other types of devices.
The number of Alexa skills is varied and growing daily. From simple trivia games to recipe databases to controls for your security systems—you can find almost anything in the skills section of the Alexa app. To enable a skill, simply find it in the Alexa app and tap the enable button. Or, if you know the name, simply tell Alexa to enable the skill. Some noteworthy skills include Jeopardy, AllRecipes, and Uber/Lyft.
Another growing area of Alexa is smart home devices. Many devices including thermostats from various companies, lighting from companies such as Philips, smart door locks, and even whole home security systems can be controlled through an Echo device. Generally the device must be set up either directly on the device and/or through its connected app, which may or may not be accessible. Once the smart home device is connected to your WiFi, it can be connected to Alexa. This is done in the app, generally by enabling a skill and connecting either directly to the device or by signing into the related account.
Reading Kindle books on the PC has traditionally been a less than enjoyable experience. The book could only be read by the system’s text-to-speech voice, and navigation was minimal at best. Very recently, Kindle for PC version 1.19 paired with NVDA has enabled much more granular navigation of Kindle books. It is possible to navigate by chapter, by page, right down to character-by-character navigation. However, only Kindle books that support enhanced typesetting will work in this version. Unfortunately, the only place this information is located is in the product details on the Amazon site, and no warning is given when opening an incompatible book other than it not being possible to read the book using the arrow keys. Highlighting and attaching notes is completely accessible with NVDA, and it is also possible to navigate by link or graphic on the current page. Currently, the best results are with NVDA, though JAWS does provide a reduced level of access, but selecting text and the associated functions are not compatible.
Kindle for Mac is, unfortunately, completely inaccessible. The login screen is unusable with VoiceOver. While the menu bar is accessible after logging in, none of the content can be used or interacted with in any way.
Kindle for iOS is very accessible. The login process, book selection, and download are all very usable with VoiceOver. Once in a book, a two-finger swipe down starts continuous reading. A double-tap on the screen shows the menu bar, where it is possible to navigate to different parts of the book, share the book, or return to the library.
Kindle for Android is also very accessible with TalkBack. When loading a book, simply swipe right to start continuous reading. Just as with Kindle on the Fire, it is possible to drag a finger around the screen to find a word to start a selection. Once the start of the selection is found, a double-tap and hold brings up the usual selection options, though once something is selected, when returning to that location later, there is no announcement from TalkBack that something is there.
Amazon’s devices have come a long way since the original Kindle for PC was released in 2009. The Fire tablets and Fire TV are becoming increasingly viable entertainment devices for the blind and low vision. The Alexa devices are very popular, thanks to their ability to provide access to smart home products that may not be natively accessible. Even the Kindle reading apps mostly continue to show improvement. Amazon has made significant strides in accessibility in nearly all their products, and it will be exciting to see what new developments arise in 2017 and beyond.
At the time of writing in March 2017, the products mentioned in this article are commercially available at the following prices:
Kindle E-reader: $79.99
Kindle Paperwhite: $119.99
Kindle Voyage: $199.99
Kindle Oasis: $289.99
Fire Tablet: $49.99
Fire HD 6: $69.99
Fire HD 8: $89.99
Fire HD 10: $229.99
Amazon Echo: $179.99
Amazon Tap: $129.99
Amazon Echo Tap: $49.99