By David Faucheux, a freelance audiobook reviewer for Library Journal. The views are not necessarily LJ’s. Also see TeleRead’s Rx for the Kindle text-to-speech mess—to help blind and sighted alike.
I’ve been blind most of my life. But I hold a masters degree in library and information science and am comfortable with tech although I’m not a full-fledged expert.
TeleRead asked me in July if I would consider reviewing the recently released $80 basic Amazon Kindle. It brings back the text-to-speech accessibility that had existed in older versions. But there is an ugly Catch 22 for blind people.
Just how can we benefit from the built-in audio VoiceView tutorial and related guidance in the already-loaded users’ guide if we don’t know how to use the screen reader in the first place? You must drill down too far in the menus to reach text-to-speech features.
Unfortunately this typifies Amazon’s seeming lack of understanding and empathy in considering the needs of blind people. My Kindle arrived several weeks ago without information in Braille. Simple instructions could have pointed to a list of VoiceView gestures for the 8th generation Kindle on the Web, as well as guidance for using Bluetooth headphones. My Kindle does not include a speaker.
I would find out about the above Web pages only much later after David Rothman, TeleRead’s publisher, Googled around (far simpler for a sighted person to do).
Ideally I would not even have had to go online for the information. When blind people or their friends log on the Amazon site and order Kindles with text to speech, they should be able to buy Braille guides that explain TTS and the devices in general. Third-party publishers do a great job for purchasers of Apple devices. Amazon’s Kindle page for the basic model could also have identified Bluetooth headphones that would be especially blind-friendly.
Without a Braille guide to help me master the Kindle, I Googled hoping to find information online.
I located a podcast I’d heard about earlier, Eyes on Success, which featured an interview with Peter Korn, accessibility architect at Amazon. Then I visited an Amazon accessibility page mentioned in the show notes. I felt lost and rather overwhelmed. There was so much information and so many links.
Sighted help needed: Why couldn’t Amazon let me do this on my own?
So I phoned my brother, an IT support staffer for a parish school system here in Louisiana. He came over and helped me figure out how to use my Bluetooth headphones to turn on the Kindle ereader, charge it, and download two ebooks, 1536: The Year That Changed Henry VIII and A London Year – 365 Days of City Life in Diaries, Journals and Letters. None of those processes were intuitive or easy. I am still not certain how to download ebooks. There is no receive-one-free-ebook promotion with the purchase of a Kindle, either.
I later had to ask my brother to return because I could not activate the speech feature. He experimented with turning on the Kindle before switching on the Bluetooth headphones. That worked.
Hoping to understand some of the several icons that appeared on the Kindle screen— seemingly randomly—I emailed firstname.lastname@example.org for assistance. Where might I find documentation to demystify my Kindle? Amazon replied that I could email a PDF version of the Kindle documentation to my ereader or send the instructions to my main email address. I ended the call feeling totally lost. No one pointed me to the VoiceView command list and Bluetooth tips that David found on the Web. Better, I could have benefited from step-by-step written guidance offline before I turned on the Kindle. Then I would have felt much more comfortable with the actual Kindle experience.
Later I received an email asking me to rate the customer service call. I explained that I had not found it helpful. I added that I thought Amazon might have considered working with a blindness consumer organization to develop a brochure that National Braille Press could publish. Jonathan Mosen or Anna Dresner or someone at Mystic Access could have written the brochure.
Step by step, the brochure might have shown Kindle novices how to select a book, read it, rewind or fast forward in the text, pause, resume, turn pages, skip ahead, look up a word in the dictionary, or download a different book. Perhaps, too, someone (Mystic Access?) might have produced an audio-described YouTube tutorial for blind and partially sighted people, taking a novice user through the adventure of obtaining and using an ebook. It is not too late, Amazon. Please arrange for the Braille guide and other helpful documentation to be available without blind people having to figure out the Kindle first. Talk about a chance for positive PR! An Amazon employee, in fact, agreed in his reply to my Bezos letter that Braille documentation would be useful.
While I’ve received responses from Amazon, they have not helped me at all. Meanwhile I have continued to explore the device, counting it as a good day if I can get it to come up talking, and if I manage to find my book in the Recents section. It is the strangest feeling—I do not yet own an iDevice, so I don’t normally use touch screens—to skate a finger across a slick surface and hear various icons fade in and out, sometimes there and sometimes not. I must put up with a mysterious menu structure of “now you hear it, now you don’t” clues.
How could Amazon make the Kindle more useful to me, beyond providing better documentation for blind people? Obviously a simpler menu structure would help. I also wonder how much Amazon tested the Kindle on blind people—typical blind people, not technically inclined ones—before releasing the basic Kindle with TTS.
I’m curious about something else. How many blind people does Amazon employ in tech support to help other blind users? Remember, Amazon is a global corporation with the resources to do this. I also wonder if Amazon offers sufficient training to sighted experts in support so they can help blind people and sighted individuals with vision challenges. I have heard that Apple and Microsoft carefully prepare sighted people to help the blind. Microsoft customers with disabilities can even call up a special accessibility desk (1-800-936-5900).
If I have trouble, how about other blind people?
Just remember my own struggle with the basic Kindle’s TTS. I’m not a coder or even a nerd—some brilliant blind people leave me in the dust—but at least I know how to parse a typical manual. If mastering my Kindle has been a problem for someone with my knowledge and experience, imagine how hard the VoiceView commands will be to learn for the average blind person.
And what about K-12 students? Can any school system buy Kindles in good conscience for blind students and expect the ereaders to be good learning tools if the kids can’t even understand the basics of VoiceView?
Does Amazon really think that blind geniuses or teachers with doctorates in Advanced Kindle Studies will be at every school to explain the technology?
New York recently awarded Amazon a $30 million contract to deliver ebooks to public schools. It didn’t include hardware, but that might follow in time. I dread all the frustrations of blind kids, not to mention the waste of local tax money, which could result unless Amazon gets its accessibility act together.
Accessibility would also help sighted people with contrast sensitivity issues and other sight challenges that could interfere with full enjoyment of the Kindle. Despite requests from David Rothman and others over the years, Amazon refuses to include an all-text bolding option in Kindles. Also good would be a choice of TTS voices in the basic Kindle. I’ve heard that the current high-pitched female voice is harder for many older people to understand than a male voice would be. Did Amazon even try out the present voice on actual users?
My own Kindle challenges notwithstanding, I hope Amazon will not give up and won’t satisfy itself with so-so compliance with any relevant accessibility laws. Many of us blind people would love to go mainstream as readers, and the Kindle offers a much wider selection of books than I could find elsewhere.
I see hope in the Kindle—not just for me but for the company—if Amazon will care about us more. Beyond purchasing Kindles and other devices, we might even buy a few books.
Update: David Faucheux reviewed the Kindle we sent him, the new $70 basic model. We’ve been reminded that with a recent Paperwhite and an audio adapter, the TTS would have come on without all the hassles. But there would still have been the other navigation and documentation issues. The Paperwhite-adapter combo has drawn few reviews, but for what it’s worth, the rating is 1.8 out of five stars.
Publisher’s note: David (email@example.com) lives in Lafayette, Louisiana, and is the author of a self-published book, Kaleidoscope: A Year in the Life of a Blind Person, which will be available in the next few months on Amazon and Smashwords. Meanwhile, with his permission, we are reproducing a note that he wrote firstname.lastname@example.org, followed by the letter that came back from company. We’ve slightly edited David Faucheux’s note. – D.R.
David Faucheux’s note to email@example.com
Dear Mr. Bezos:
In early July, David Rothman, publisher of TeleRead, asked me to review a Kindle eReader. He had learned that this device now has text-to-speech capability. I had just learned that a popular podcast, Eyes on Success, had featured as guest, Peter Korn who sang the praises of this technology. So I excitedly waited for the device to be UPS-ed here.
In late July, I received a Kindle eReader and a set of blue-tooth enabled headphones which the device required to speak.
My adventure began!
I ended up needing sighted help to activate the speech. Nowhere in the packing materials did I find a braille brochure, such as those produced by National Braille Press for the iPhone, that might have walked me through some getting-started steps. On Amazon’s Web page for Kindle accessibility, I did not locate any documentation that explained the layout of the home screen, what types of screens would appear if you tapped an icon, how to use email, and even the dictionary.
I struggled to learn the auditory landmarks on the home screen. I noticed that a right swipe occasionally read at least one icon that did not read in a left swipe. My brother helped me purchase two eBooks so that I would have something to practice my commands and reading skills on. The Recents icon sometimes showed 1536: The Year That Changed Henry VIII and sometimes A London Year – 365 Days of City Life in Diaries, Journals and Letters. I could never figure out the reasoning and what might make one appear and not the other and where the other was hiding.
I emailed Devicefirstname.lastname@example.org and waited over a week and heard nothing. I then telephoned the 888-280-4331 number and spoke to a person who said I could use my Kindle email address to email the PDF file that documented the Kindle to my Google email address. Would that have worked? In any event, I was in a Catch 22 situation of needing to read the documentation to learn how to email myself the same documentation. I gave up. I was sent via email a customer service survey. I decided to answer it though one rarely receives any incentive to do so: example, $10 worth of Amazon credit.
I asked for better documentation and to be connected to any specially-trained blind Amazon employees who might give me pointers that only blind people would really know and understand. I suggested that we be able to connect our Kindles to a computer using the usb charge cable so that we could simply paste books to our Kindles after we download our purchases to our desktops. I wondered if Jonathan Mosen or Anna Dresner, people associated with National Braille Press, might be interested in designing a braille getting-started brochure for this device as they have done for the iPhone and iWatch. I suggested that perhaps a YouTube tutorial could be developed. I simply do not know where to go to get directions. This is not overly intuitive. The audible screens seem somehow jumpy and nervous. I accidentally turned on my Kindle before turning on the earphones, and totally messed up the voice feature. My brother had to rescue me again.
I received a rather wordy, even nebulous, response that wondered if I might want a specially designed blind Kindle and then the person listed all the versions of the Kindle that used speech and the versions of Windows that might run a Kindle app.
Lastly, I also would suggest that the home icon be a physical button on the bottom of the screen and that the power-on button be a bit easier to feel and more defined.
Thank you for a chance to explain my adventure with the Kindle. I may end up having to simply return it to Mr. Rothman and hope he finds a more tech savvy blind person to do this device justice.
The response David Faucheux received from Amazon after writing Jeff Bezos
From: Amazon.com [mailto:email@example.com]
Sent: Thursday, August 25, 2016 11:48 AM
Subject: Your Email to Jeff Bezos Re: Concerning the Kindle eReader and Its Speaking Ability
I’m Paul Garcia of Amazon’s Tech Support Executive Customer Relations. Jeff Bezos received your email and asked me to respond on his behalf.
I want to apologize for the inconveniences that you’re experiencing with our Kindle device and its text-to-speech feature, we certainly want to make sure you get the best experience when using our devices and feedback like yours helps us continue to improve the service we provide, and we’re glad you took the time to write to us, therefore I’ve shared your feedback with the Kindle developers team for their consideration. I do believe it is a great idea to have a braille brochure with instructions.
Regarding the compatibility of the personal documents, you can send personal documents and web content to your registered Kindle e-readers, Fire tablets, and supported Kindle reading apps, and archive to your Kindle Library in the Manage Your Content and Devices page through a Send to Kindle application, or through your Send to Kindle email address as mentioned by Ken A. You can learn more about sending personal documents to your Kindle e-reader, Fire tablet, and supported Kindle reading apps at:
Again, we appreciate your time in writing to us, and I hope you have a great day. Our customer service team will be able to help if you have any remaining questions or concerns; please contact them here: http://www.amazon.com/contact-us.
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Tech Support Executive Customer Relations Amazon.com http://www.amazon.com