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eBooks: An Accessibility Disconnect?

It’s easy to think that new publishing formats like EPUB3 have made accessibility issues a thing of the past. James Scholes – an expert screen reader user and ebook tester – suggests there’s still a long way to go…

It’s no surprise that the eBook revolution has been a boon to many visually impaired people. For the first time, books in electronic formats get the same attention as their hard copy counterparts. This allows disabled readers all over the world to ditch hefty braille volumes, badly-proofed scans and illegally-obtained eBook files. The growth of ebooks has accompanied increased awareness of international standards such as ePub, with its high native accessibility.  Accessible eBook production is in the spotlight more than ever.

However, many disabled readers are finding that, despite all of the efforts to push eBook accessibility forward, there is an ever-widening gap between eBook producers and consumers. Digital rights management, proprietary formatting and unusable software is causing many disabled people to hit up against brick walls. This, in turn, is impacting their work, studies, private learning and reading for pleasure. This article explores the tools that work well for blind readers, the ones that could be improved, and the core problems that are causing accessibility setbacks.

Mainstream Platforms and Apps

Much progress has been made in the last few years to make eBooks accessible to screen reader users on different platforms and devices. This has opened up new worlds for visually impaired people who have been able to obtain documents for work or studies, as well as the latest novel at the same time and price as their sighted friends and colleagues. It has also, however, lead many companies to claim that their product offerings are accessible, when in reality they are only usable on a certain platform, limiting choice.

What works

On iOS devices, many popular eBook stores including iBooks and Amazon Kindle have become accessible with VoiceOver (the built-in screen reader). In general, these apps provide excellent navigation and access to books on a character-by-character basis, which is crucially important for the efficient finding of information, spelling of unfamiliar words, and quoting of particular passages in academic assignments. In the case of Amazon Kindle, the app also allows VoiceOver access to books even if the publisher has specified that text-to-speech capability should not be available, addressing a long-standing concern with the Kindle Store.

What doesn’t

On other platforms, however, blind users can often find themselves locked out of the very same eBook stores. On Mac OS X, iBooks only gained accessibility features over a year after its initial release, and on Windows, access isn’t available at all. Amazon’s Kindle applications for OS X and Windows are woefully unusable, with the latest versions (at the time of writing) not even allowing independent signing in to a user’s Kindle account. This generally causes many people to seek out alternative solutions which allow them to use their choice of screen reader, speech synthesiser and operating system combination.

Big improvements but not entirely equal..

One such alternative which has received some attension is Adobe’s Digital Editions, whose development team have gone to great lengths to ensure that on both Windows and Mac, the application communicates with various screen readers including JAWS, NVDA, VoiceOver and other applications which support UI Automation technology. Users are able to read and interact with book content, but unfortunately this keyboard accessibility doesn’t extend to other useful tools in the application, such as bookmarking, annotation and text highlighting.

Sean Randall, screen reader user and Access Technology Instructor at New College Worcester, uses Digital Editions with his students and benefits from its annotation features:

“We use Digital Editions not because it supports DRM content per se, but because it’s the only really viable solution to share annotations from a teacher to a blind student in a mainstream way. I think it handles DRM well and would benefit from much keyboard improvement; if bookmarking and annotating could be made comparable to the sighted it’d be a formidable educational tool.”

Digital Editions also offers access to books from many local and university libraries, a huge bonus for students who otherwise would be limited to chasing accessible copies directly from publishers, or trying to use web-based readers which are often not very user-friendly.

Non-mainstream and Independent Tools

Sadly, Digital Editions is one of the only mainstream tools which is regularly used by blind readers to gain access to eBooks on the desktop. Many more people instead turn to independently-developed applications such as QRead on Windows or Voice Dream Reader on iOS, which both offer screen reader access to formats such as ePub, MOBI and PDF. Both also allow a user to log in to and read books from Bookshare, an ever-popular online library offering free DAISY books to print-disabled individuals.

In many cases such applications are created by and for screen reader users, and offer accessibility as a primary focus. As a result, they are often more popular than similar mainstream tools, because they require less work-arounds and provide a much less frustrating user experience. But while independent developers are undoubtedly to be encouraged, the existence of such tools creates a disconnect between mainstream eBook production and disabled consumers. The software can often be quite limited in areas such as book navigation and presentation of complex data such as tables or mathematical equations, and commercial DRM schemes are not supported for legal reasons.

The same can be said for assistive technology products such as the Victor Reader Stream and Blaze EZ, as well as eBook reading applications on braille note takers. Poor format support, over-simplification of the user interface and lack of industry recognition can end up locking disabled readers into only using books which are DRM-free, or that come from an approved source, often aimed at blind users only. Subsequently, disabled readers are not in a position to take advantage of innovative tools and formats, even if they have accessibility baked into their core design.

The future

This post has given an overview of the state of eBook accessibility for blind and visually impaired people as things stand at the start of 2016. It is my hope that at some point in the near future, the work of commercial, mainstream and independent developers, publishers, distributors and designers of new eBook formats and standards such as ePub 3 will in some way be merged together to provide a truly accessible, usable and convenient reading experience for everybody, regardless of disability or level of technical experience.

More than ever, technology is providing a platform for openness and choice. It is time for that platform to play host to readers from every background and of every ability. It’s time for DRM to be adapted so that it does its job, without destroying access for entire groups of the population. But most of all, it’s time to communicate, to discuss, and to get input from every kind of reader. Accessibility is only as good as the usability that it generates, and the input of real-world users is needed to truly move it forward.

The author

I’m a blind independent software developer, accessibility tester and advocate from West Yorkshire, passionate about helping other visually impaired computer users keep up with the ever-changing tide of technology.  I’ve worked with Sage and and contributed to conferences on ebook accessibility. I can be contacted via email at james(at), on Twitter @JamesScholes.

4 replies on “eBooks: An Accessibility Disconnect?”

There’s so much choice out there that it makes me wonder whether we should be taking cues from our users instead of us informing them of what’s out there. After all it’s more than likely that they’ll be using these tools before they move on to HE.

It’s a good point and is certainly true for skilled IT users. The broader issue is that the level of IT skill can be highly variable. RNC Hereford have noted a decline in the IT and assistive technology skills of the learners coming to them. Part of this may be attributed to the tendency for blind learners to go to mainstream schools where the specialist technical skills are more thinly distributed and it is often easier to give human support (read to students) rather developing their independence with apps, screenreaders and other tools. Perhaps the key thing educators should be doing is empowering disabled learners to be active in online communities where their own expertise can be nurtured from the existing pool of expert users… though I suspect there is scope for much to be lost in translation between novice screenreader users and some of the hardcore IT experts with disabilities.

I read this with interest as I am a disability support librarian and very keen to improve my knowledge and awareness of screen reading software, so that I can help/give advice to print impaired students.
As N Skeen says, there are so many possibilities available. I’ve tried out apps such as NVDA and Balabolka, but without regular use and refreshing of knowledge, I don’t always remember how to use them. Also the University PCs don’t allow students to install software, so they need to be portable.
This article have introduced me to some other alternatives, like QRead, but I don’t have the resources to buy software, so would be reliant on a free trial – again, not giving much opportunity for regular use and experience.
I suppose I’m trying to say that with the best will in the world, people like myself are reliant on people like you, James, to pass on your wealth of experience with assistive technology. Thanks.

Hi Katherine – as James points out the biggest ‘disconnect’ occurs in terms of screen reader users where the software is doing several layers of work from reading the text to navigating the layout, software and operating system. There are more options for learners who just need the text read out – for example browser based plugins. ChromeSpeak ( works really well with locally installed TTS voices like the TechDis voices. ClaroRead Chrome is more fully featured but a bit more intrusive (you can’t hide it easily)

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