XVIII.1 January + February 2011
Page: 67
Digital Citation

Design and public policy considerations for accessible e-book readers

Chris Danielsen, Anne Taylor, Wesley Majerus

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Throughout most of human history, access to written information has been one of the greatest challenges faced by the blind. Until the invention of Braille, lack of access to written knowledge probably played a large role in the isolation of the blind from the rest of society. While the invention of the printing press in the mid-1400s began the information revolution, Braille did not come along until nearly 400 years later. The introduction of sound recording later allowed the production of audiobooks, the first of which were specifically designed for the visually impaired. But neither the introduction of Braille nor the creation of "talking books" gave blind readers, or others with visual disabilities, full access to the scope of printed material available to the rest of the general public. E-books have the potential to allow the blind and others to gain full access to the printed word, but this will happen only if e-books and the applications and devices used to read them are well designed; if public institutions that plan to use e-books demand accessibility; and if public policy affirms the right of the visually impaired to have full and equal access.

back to top  Background

When Braille was invented in the early 1820s, for the first time in history blind people had the opportunity to easily read books by themselves. The code is still indispensable among the visually impaired as a means of obtaining literacy and gaining access to information. But mass production of Braille books was not immediately possible. Even when Braille presses were developed in the early 20th century, books had to first be hand-transcribed onto the metal plates that were used to press the dots into paper. Today computer software can translate text into Braille, so production is quicker and easier, but Braille still has its limitations. It is not as compact as print, so a single novel may comprise several volumes—each the size of a conventional print dictionary.

Beginning in the 1930s, the blind accessed literature through Talking Books, the first unabridged audiobooks. For nearly 80 years, the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped of the Library of Congress (NLS) has distributed Braille books and Talking Books through its network of cooperating libraries in the U.S.

Technology has made it easier for blind people to gain access to books. For over a decade now, devices that can electronically store Braille and reproduce it on refreshable displays have been available to the visually impaired. This means that a Braille book can be distributed in a single digital file—downloadable from the Internet—rather than in two or more bulky volumes. The NLS has taken advantage of this technology, and its patrons have been permitted to download Braille books as refreshable Braille devices became widely available. NLS is also in the process of digitizing its Talking Book collection and also making it available for download. So blind people have, in a sense, been using e-books longer than any other segment of the general public. But these e-books are converted from the original print texts, so they still take time to produce. Furthermore, the cost of refreshable Braille technology creates a barrier for many visually impaired readers. Stand-alone Braille displays start at around $1,500, and devices that offer some of the functions of a PDA or laptop computer—commonly called "Braille notetakers"—sell for up to $6,500. Digital Talking Book players are much less expensive (around $300 to $500), but Talking Books are not as useful for research and reference.

The biggest problem with the specialized Braille and audio materials is that they still cannot be mass-produced. The NLS is a government agency, and most of the other entities that produce such books are nonprofits staffed largely by volunteers. NLS produces around 2,000 books a year; of these, 600 are Braille titles. Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D) claims to have around 50,000 titles in its entire library. A few popular commercial titles are available as commercial audiobooks. But even adding these to the equation, it is estimated that only about 5 percent of the books published each year become available in formats that blind readers can use.

back to top  Designing for Accessible E-books and E-book Readers

Commercial e-books represent a potential but, as yet, unrealized solution to the problem of accessiblity for the blind. E-books are really just computer files—collections of 0s and 1s—that can be translated by computers and other devices into any desired medium. With a few notable exceptions discussed below, most kinds of computer files can be easily translated into accessible media for the blind via text-to-speech technology, Braille displays, magnification software, and the like. The primary factors that have excluded visually impaired users from the e-book revolution are the use of file formats that cannot be read by the technologies used by the blind; DRM schemes that prevent such technology from accessing these files; and proprietary e-book reading software or devices that the blind cannot use. E-books, which hold the promise of truly equal access by the blind to all printed information, are in serious danger of becoming an even greater barrier to such access.

Using existing standards and drawing on examples of book formats and reading systems that have been proven to provide e-book access, one can understand design considerations for making a usable and accessible e-book. As mentioned previously, Braille books have been made available for download by the NLS since 1999. Though these books are accessible, they are simply flat, linear files that contain ASCII Braille. This means that any pertinent item in the table of contents, such as a chapter or section, must be located by performing a text search of the material. Though this is possible, it can become time-consuming and requires attention to details such as spelling and matching exactly the search criteria with the chapter title. In recent years, the Digital Accessible Information System (DAISY) has been developed to provide a standard to mark up books and other materials. The DAISY standard allows for six levels of heading markup in addition to page-level navigation, movement by predefined phrases, and text and full audio synchronization. Through synchronization of full text and audio, a reader can listen to a recorded narrator read the book while reading along in Braille, or listen to the recorded text and stop to examine the text portion of the book in detail to learn about spelling or other attributes. Differing heading levels mean that a DAISY book can be marked up such that course-grain navigation by parts and sections can be denoted by a high-level heading, and much finer-grain navigation by subsection or chapter can be denoted by a lower-level heading. This provides flexibility to make books of varying types accessible. DAISY has been utilized by the NLS to digitize new and preexisting Talking Books in their collection. Various hardware and software solutions are available to play DAISY content and to allow DAISY books, which contain text to be read audibly or with refreshable Braille.

With its release of the iBooks application and bookstore this past April, Apple is the first company to provide mainstream access to books for blind readers. Through the use of the iPad, iPod Touch, and iPhone running the latest iPhone OS and the iBooks application, blind readers can browse the iBooks store and obtain books at the same price and in the same amount of time as their sighted counterparts. In addition, if they wish, they can also review a sample book before they purchase it, as well as browse bestseller lists and obtain free books from sources such as Project Gutenberg. While reading an iBooks publication, users have the capability to browse the table of contents and select a topic of their choosing to read; review the book by character, word, and line; flip the pages of the book; and have the book be automatically read aloud from their current location. With the implementation of Apple's basic Braille support, users can examine the book's text in contracted or uncontracted Braille using one of 30 refreshable wireless Braille displays.

Some reading formats remain inaccessible. Books from sources like Adobe Digital Editions employ digital-rights management and other technologies that prohibit screen-access software from gaining access to the text. Books made available for e-readers produced by Barnes and Noble and Sony cannot be read because these hardware devices do not provide text-to-speech output to allow access to the books. In addition, software that allows Barnes and Noble's books to be read on personal computers or other handheld devices is also inaccessible. Although the Kindle is accessible inasmuch as it provides speech output, nearly half of all books have text-to-speech disabled, and the reading of the book must be enabled for each book each and every time you want to read it. There is also no navigational structure within the books on the Kindle because you cannot move by characters, lines, or other elements as the device reads aloud. Moreover, the Kindle does not provide a means for blind users to buy content or browse the Web directly from the device.

This is not just a matter of blind people having books to read for pleasure. It is likely that the segment of publishing that will go digital the fastest will be the market for textbooks. Since e-books are inherently accessible, electronic textbooks could have huge benefits for the blind as well as for other populations, such as individuals with learning disabilities or physical injuries that prevent them from using print books. It is estimated that 30 million Americans have some disability—physical, cognitive, or developmental—that prevents them from reading print effectively. Globally, there are approximately 500 million print-disabled people. Electronic books could finally eliminate the time and labor-intensive project of converting a hard-copy book into an accessible format. In the long run, this would save universities—which are obligated by U.S. law to convert books to accessible formats for their blind students or else compensate human readers to help those students—a great deal of time and money. Furthermore, visually impaired students would get their textbooks on time for the start of their courses, something that does not often happen now. (Blind students may wait anywhere from three weeks into a class to the end of the semester for a book in an accessible format.) So far, however, commercially available e-textbooks are largely inaccessible. As academic institutions turn to electronic textbooks for instructing their students, new and emerging technologies could unintentionally erect barriers to making them accessible. A means for providing access for pictorial content like graphs, charts, and other illustrations will need to be provided. To a limited extent, Apple's iBooks can provide access to images that have the proper alternative-text encoding. Books are also likely to become more media-rich. Access to media content will need to be provided in the form of captioning of video content for deaf users as well as audio description of videos for the blind. For books that incorporate audio and text, capabilities for controlling the audio's volume as well as moving through the audio content will need to be made available. Guidelines like the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines could be beneficial in ensuring accessible multimedia in e-books.

back to top  Public-Policy Activity and Considerations

U.S. public policy already demands access to information in certain spheres, such as universities and public libraries; advocacy groups like the Reading Rights Coalition [1]—which consists of groups representing people who cannot read print—are actively working to make institutions aware of public-policy considerations and working toward new standards that will ensure accessibility. Here is a summary of recent public-policy considerations and activities to date:

  • In the U.S., colleges and universities are required by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and various state laws to provide an equal education to students with disabilities. These requirements include technology used by institutions of higher education. Recently the civil rights offices of both the U.S. Department of Justice and the Department of Education reminded universities of these obligations with respect to e-readers, noting that the Kindle DX reader has inaccessible menus and therefore should not be used unless the universities provide reasonable accommodation or modification [2].
  • Public libraries are also responsible under the Americans with Disabilities Act for meeting the needs of patrons with disabilities. Recently, the American Library Association passed a resolution reminding libraries of their obligations to ensure that they procure accessible electronic resources that meet established accessibility guidelines [3].
  • At the urging of the White House, groups representing authors, publishers, and individuals with disabilities committed to work together in order to improve access to books in alternative formats [4].
  • The World Intellectual Property Organization of the United Nations is considering proposals to allow for greater access to books by blind people throughout the world by allowing accessible copies of published materials to be transmitted across international borders [5].

back to top  Looking Toward the Future

The situation for the blind with respect to access to e-books is brighter than it was even a year ago. In addition to the release of Amazon's Kindle 3, which incorporates some accessibility features for visually impaired users, Apple has introduced the iPad and its iBook store and e-reading application, and colleges and universities are making efforts to meet the needs of blind students. But much work remains to be done in ensuring full access to e-books by the blind and others with print disabilities. To date the Kindle 3 and Apple products, which use its latest iPhone operating system or run the iBooks application, are the only e-readers with accessibility features. To be fair, more accessible e-book products are promised, but until they materialize and can be evaluated, it is unclear what benefits (if any) they will bring to the visually impaired. Standards are needed in order to ensure that e-textbooks truly meet the needs of students with print disabilities, especially the blind. The visually impaired and other Americans with disabilities will continue to engage with e-book publishers and device and application manufacturers in hopes that the potential of e-book technology to level the playing field for Americans with disabilities can truly be realized.

back to top  References

1. Reading Rights Coalition;

2. Office for Civil Rights, Joint "Dear Colleague" Letter: Electronic Book Readers;

3. American Library Association, Purchasing of Accessible Electronic Resources Resolution;

4. Dale, K. One Step Closer to Full Access. The White House Blog. 09 March 2010;

5. World Intellectual Property Organization;

back to top  Authors

Chris Danielsen has been blind since birth and joined the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) in 1989. Danielsen spent most of his life in South Carolina, where he served on the board of the NFB's state affiliate. He moved to Baltimore to join national headquarters staff in 2003, during this time he wrote for and edited various publications for three years. He has worked full time in the public relations office at the NFB since August of 2006 and became director of public relations in January 2009. He also serves as the president of the Greater Baltimore Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland. Prior to joining the NFB, he worked as an attorney in private practice in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and as a law clerk to the South Carolina Senate Judiciary Committee. He has a B.A. in political science from Furman University and received his J.D. from the University of South Carolina School of Law.

Anne Taylor is the director of access technology for the National Federation of the Blind. Her main responsibilities include: managing the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind (IBTC), the most comprehensive consumer evaluation center for nonvisual access technology in the world; leading a team of access technology experts who provide feedback to access technology product manufacturers; maintaining a relationship with mainstream technology companies such as Microsoft, GE, Apple, and Amazon to ensure the accessibility of their technologies; participating in the product development of the HumanWare Victor Reader Stream; and leading the planning and implementation of the IBTC's technology training seminars. Taylor is an expert on all Braille and speech access technologies in the IBTC.

Wes Majerus has served as a member of the Jernigan Institute's Access Technology Team since September of 2008. Prior to arriving at the National Federation of the Blind, Majerus worked for five years for the Nebraska state government as a Web accessibility consultant, trainer, and Web developer. His primary duties for the access technology team are to provide assistance to blind persons across the nation by answering access technology-related telephone calls and emails. In addition, Majerus assists with Web Site Accessibility Certification requests by providing feedback on the functionality of the site with screen access software. He conducts tours for visitors who come to Baltimore each year to visit the International Braille and Technology Center, which gives them the opportunity to receive hands-on demonstrations of technology products and vendor-free advice about specific products that may meet their needs. In addition to assisting with these tours, Majerus also writes technology related blog posts and articles that appear in various NFB publications and on the Access Technology Blog hosted on the website.

back to top  Footnotes


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