On June 29, 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education sent out a "Dear Colleague Letter" (DCL) to college and university presidents across the nation. The letter expressed their concern regarding the use of "electronic book readers that are not accessible to students who are blind or have low vision." More specifically they state there is "a serious problem with some of these devices [in that] they lack an accessible text-to-speech function." For more information, see "Questions and Answers about the Law, the Technology, and the Population Affected."
The text-to-speech (TTS) functionality allows the electronic book reader device to convert digital text into an audio format for the non-sighted user. In addition to this, the navigational and operational controls for the e-reader must also be accessible. All users, regardless of capability, must be able to accomplish basic functions like turn the unit on, select and move forward and backward within e-texts, resize the characters and increase/decrease volume. The following is a list of required features an e-reader device must have in order to be accessible.
The DCL emphasizes accessibility for students with visual disabilities. The remainder of this web page addresses not only visual impairments, but also other disabilities where noted.
Controls Necessary for Accessible E-reader Devices
REQUIRED features for accessibility
If a user cannot perform the following minimum functions, an e-reader device is not accessible:
- Listen to an audio playback of the e-text
- Operate basic controls such as on/off and volume control
- Navigate to and within selected e-text files
These features are strongly recommended for e-reader accessibility:
For operating the device:
- Support of TTS for all digital text
- Audible or tactile feedback of control functions (on/off, volume)
- Audible feedback for operational features (book selection, annotation, search, dictionary, highlighting)
- Physical button for screen control for high contrast and unrestricted text resizing (magnification tool)
- Audio feedback for video captioning
- Input jack to accommodate user's preferred keyboard or other device (applicable to disabilities other than blindness)
- Input capability that accommodates motion impairments such as puff straw or mouth stick sensitivity (applicable to disabilities other than blindness)
For navigating e-books:
- Audible feedback to announce current position (book, chapter, sub-chapter, page)
- Audible feedback regarding progress via page number or percentage of position within the document
- Status feedback on how many bookmarks, annotations or highlights (similar data) exist within current segment
- Navigational controls via button or touch screen that announce previous/next: chapter, sub-chapter, bookmark, graphic, table, heading, paragraph, sentence, word, character
- Ability to navigate to and within Table of Contents via tactile or auditory controls
- Auditory identification of annotations
- Search that identifies success/failure status with audible feedback and ability to focus on term within text. This should include navigation forward and backward.
DESIRABLE usability features
While not strictly required for accessibility, these features greatly increase the usability of an e-reader device for all audiences.
- Phonetic pronunciation of selected word
- Reading of selected text portions
- Ranking capability of annotations (important, normal, low)
- Ability for user to add or modify graphic and non-textual descriptions
- Customizable dictionary
- Ability to save preference settings for individual users
As of July 2010, the iPad is the only general-use e-reader that meets the accessibility requirements (as well as several recommended accessibility features). However, the iPad may not meet all the needs of people with motion disabilities. For further information about the accessibility of the iPad, go to www.apple.com/ipad/features/accessibility.html. Note that some e-readers, such as the HumanWare VictorReader Stream, have been designed specifically for people with disabilities. However, these devices might not be suitable for general use.
Although the Kindle falls short of the required accessible navigation for people with disabilities, Amazon stated their intention in a 2009 press release to make the Kindle more useful for the blind. They project summer 2010 for a release date.
The following discussion of specific iPad accessibility features helps explain what various product capabilities mean in practical terms.
The iPad comes with TTS support and playback of closed-captioned content. It includes "VoiceOver" technology that gives an audio description of the icon the user is touching. Further navigation is accomplished through gesture control such as double-tapping, dragging and flicking. This is an area where the iPad may present obstacles for motion-impaired users.
Zoom or magnification is another feature provided with the iPad. Zoom works with all the applications on the iPad but is limited to a magnification factor of 5. This may be inadequate for some disabilities.
The iPad provides a high contrast setting that works within any application. This allows the user to change the display setting to improve visual acuity.
In conjunction with these accessibility features, the iPad offers a way to quickly turn them off and on by using a "Triple-click Home" feature. This would work well in a classroom setting for multiple users.
The author, Tim Offenstein, wishes to thank Hadi Rangin for his helpful input and suggestions on compiling the lists of features.