Amazon introduces a hardware solution for accessibility

access_pwIf you’ve still been hoping for Amazon to bring back the text-to-speech for the e-ink Kindles, you may be out of luck. The death knell for that sounded today when Amazon announced it’s new VoiceView For Kindle feature today.  The feature uses Amazon’s text-to-speech language system (Ivona) to help visually impaired customers navigate the Kindle Paperwhite.

Previous generations of e-ink Kindles offered by Amazon used speakers are or a 3.5mm jack to provide the sound for text-to-speech. This solution uses a separate USB dongle that requires the use of headphones. According to Amazon’s blog:

Visually impaired customers will be able to use VoiceView for Kindle with the new Kindle Audio Adapter—an Amazon-designed USB audio dongle—to connect headphones or speakers, which then allows the ability to listen to and navigate the user interface, in addition to listening to books. The Kindle Audio Adapter was designed specifically to be used with VoiceView for Kindle.

The new Kindle Audio Adapter is available now as part of the Kindle Paperwhite Blind and Visually Impaired Readers Bundle.  The bundle includes the Kindle Paperwhite with Wi-Fi and Special Offers and the Kindle Audio Adapter. According to Amazon, purchasers receive a $19.99 Account Credit back for the purchase of the adapter, “so they won’t have to pay extra for accessibility.”  The dongle is promised to be available at a future date for other Kindle e-readers.  Update: the adapter is now available separately for $19.99. New story here.

My reaction to this? I am seriously underwhelmed. IMHO, the hardware dongle is the wrong approach and one much too late in coming.

As a bit of background, I should note that I myself am vision impaired. In the past, I worked managing federal grants (which included monitoring ADA compliance issues) and had also represented my community at an Easter Seals Project Action Seminar. So this is an area that really interest me, personally and professionally.

Text-to-speech has been a thorny issue for Amazon since the feature was first introduced on the Kindle 2. The Authors Guild strenuously objected to the feature and claimed it was, in fact, illegal. Amazon finally backed off and let the publishers decide whether text-to-speech should be enabled on a title. While the Kindle Keyboard, the Kindle DX and the 2012 Kindle Touch were text-to-speech enabled, subsequent models have not included the feature.

The hardware USB dongle approach is problematic for several reasons. First, the dongle solutions limits independence. It means that, at least for right now, I have to buy a special Kindle bundle in order to have accessibility instead of all Kindles providing that accessibility. In order to use the dongle, I would also have to purchase or provide headphones or a speaker in order to make the device in order to use the disability features. (This is a barrier a sighted person would not have if using a Kindle Paperwhite.)

What about people who already own Paperwhites? The Kindle Audio Adapter is not available separately so that I could make one of the Paperwhites I already own accessible. From the product page: 

Kindle Audio Adapter [is] only compatible with VoiceView enabled Kindle e-readers (does not support music or audiobook playback)

Will there be a software update for current Paperwhites? It will be interesting to see how Amazon handles that issue (if at all). According to ADA regulations, Amazon can’t legally charge for the adapter,  so I really doubt that we will see the item available separately.

This hardware solution also seems to dramatically affect battery life on the Kindle Paperwhite. According to the product page:

A single battery charge provides up to 6 hours of continuous reading while using Kindle Audio Adaptor [sic]

Notice the difference in battery power. Current Paperwhites are supposed to get 30 days use at a half an hour of use per day or the equivalent of approximately 15 hours. That’s two and a half times the battery life you will get when using the dongle.

That battery life becomes a real concern as the dongle is using the same port that the Kindle uses for recharging. That means that you cannot use accessibility features and charge the Kindle itself at the same time. I see that as an issue that is going to severely limit the usefulness of the connected Kindle.

I intend to be watching this feature very closely to see how this story develops. We will see how this new feature actually performs in practice. It will be interesting to see if Amazon opens this up to existing Kindles and just how quickly it rolls out to other Kindle models.

Found via KindleChronicles / Teleread

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