Accessibility Issues in eBooks and eBook Readers

Thank you, Ken Petri, for your ongoing technical work, support, and advocacy at The Ohio State University Web Accessibility Center! You are a class act!

Supplemental: Accessibility Issues in E-Books and E-Book Readers

This page[i] supplements material from a chapter on the accessibility of e-books in No Shelf Required 2: Use and Management of Electronic Books (NSR2) – external link. It covers two topics that had to be truncated in the chapter due to concerns about length and currency of information:

Taken together, the topics reveal a general truth: At present there is no silver bullet e-book reader or platform for users with disabilities. In a perfect world, we would cherry pick the best features and behaviors from many of the readers and bake them into a truly universally usable device or software that met our functional criteria. Undoubtedly it will be some time before someone serves up the mystical amalgam, either via installed software or the web or on a dedicated device; however, even as our book chapter moved from draft to final copy, it became necessary to revise the overview to mark accessibility improvements in many of the e-book readers. Maybe the future is sooner than we think.

Functional Criteria for E-Book Accessibility

In our chapter in NSR2, we give a general overview of four accessibility guidelines that bear directly or indirectly on e-book accessibility — the NISO DTB Standards Committee Playback Device Guidelines – external link, the W3C’s UAAG 2.0 – external link and WCAG 2.0 Principles – external link, and the Federal Section 508 Functional Performance Criteria – external link.

Below we list the general category of functional limitations these guidelines attempt to address and provide a set of criteria an e-book reader/platform should implement in order to accommodate each limitation. Our criteria borrow from the previously mentioned guidelines. Some also derive from the excellent list of recommendations presented in “E-Accessible Reader: The Integral Design and Standardization” – external link, delivered by Marilyn Irwin and Nantanoot Suwannawut at the 2011 International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference (CSUN).

These criteria are not meant to be definitive and we make no claims with regard to their completeness. They were last updated October 7, 2011.

  • Functional Limitation: Total or near-total vision impairment:
    • Accommodation: An e-book should facilitate access via text-to-speech (TTS), whether the TTS is built into the e-book reader itself or achieved through the user’s own TTS software (screen reader).
    • Accommodation: All functionality of the device, including that for selecting and copying text, note-taking, highlighting, bookmarking, sharing of notes, filling out form inputs, etc., should be available to TTS and mapped to accepted/OS-native screen reader interaction methods.
    • Accommodation: Speech rate, pitch, and volume should be easily adjustable, preferably without leaving the book or library interface.
    • Accommodation: Physical keyboards should have tactile markers for orienting to the keyboard and on-screen keyboards need to voice selection prior to actuation/key press and, ideally, have some form of feedback that the user can feel (i.e., haptic feedback).
    • Accommodation: Devices should have controls that are easily identifiable by touch. That is, all physical buttons should be easy to differentiate by touch alone. For touch screen devices, controls should be readily discoverable via simple touch interactions. For example, when VoiceOver, the native Apple iOS screen reader, is activated in iPad, all the controls within iBooks can be discovered via the standard right- or left-single-finger swipe motion, in addition to being announced when the user’s finger passes over a control or speakable item.
    • Accommodation: It should be easy to mute and to pause the audio on the device or software reader.
    • Accommodation: Alerts, such as switching between interfaces, turning pages, or completion of downloading/loading a book, should have distinct audio output (tones/“ear-cons” and/or speech).
    • Accommodation: Multimedia and video players within e-books should provide the facility for audio description — a secondary audio track for spoken descriptions of in-video text, scenes, actions and gestures, and observable emotional states.
    • Accommodation: Support for audio feedback-rich navigation of complex markup, including tables and MathML, the standard markup language for encoding math equations in HTML or XML-derived documents.
    • Accommodation: Some ability for a user to set her own keyboard shortcuts is desirable.
  • Functional Limitation: “Low-vision” (moderate to profound vision impairment):
    • Accommodation: Devices should have controls which are clearly marked and large enough to be seen and distinguished or have controls that are easily identifiable by touch.
    • Accommodation: Device-based and installed e-book software should allow the user full typographic control of book contents, including ability to set foreground (text) and background color and highlighting colors, choose font face, increase text size (with wrapping to the visible screen/window), set line length/column width, and set word, line, and character spacing. E-book software should not default to a two-column layout when in landscape mode; this should be user configurable. And there should be the ability to set relative sizes of headings and body text, since uniformly proportionally enlarged text may make heading/body size differences too great. Ideally, software should allow for multiple user-configurable preset typographical styles.
    • Accommodation: Text in the user interface (menus, buttons, etc.) should be able to be enlarged and a have high-contrast setting.
    • Accommodation: Installed software e-book readers should be able to adopt the native OS contrast settings.
  • Functional Limitation: Color blindness:
    • Accommodation: Use of, especially, red and green as differentiators of controls should be avoided (blue and yellow may be a suitable alternative). Preferably either avoid color differentiators or accompany colors with textual descriptions and/or shapes.
  • Functional Limitation: Upper-body motor disabilities which prevent grasping a book or turning pages/clicking controls to manipulate book functions:
    • Accommodation: Devices should be light, durable (capable of being dropped without damage), and able to be mounted on a wheelchair or stand (perhaps with a specialized mounting bracket).
    • Accommodation: Touch screen devices should allow for non-human touch interaction (from alternative, conductive pointing devices, for example).
    • Accommodation: E-book readers should provide the ability to be navigated solely by voice (use of speech recognition for commands, etc.).
    • Accommodation: Touch screen devices should provide access to on-screen controls that allow for “loose” precision and inaccuracies in targeting and/or access to controls should be able to be cycled through via simple motions, such as swiping. (VoiceOver on iPad in iBooks or other e-readers is a signal example. The user who does not need the typical audio feedback from VoiceOver can, with a three-finger double tap, turn off speech while maintaining the swipe-motion navigation.)
    • Accommodation: Hardware controls need to be large enough to be actuated with alternative pointing devices, or there needs to be some ability to connect an alternative/substitute pointing device.
  • Functional Limitation: Cognitive disabilities which affect comprehension, including reading problems, such as dyslexia, and concentration or attention problems, such as ADHD:
    • Accommodation: Text-to-speech capability within books should be native to the device/e-book software and it should provide an option for word-by-word and sentence-by-sentence synchronized highlighting. Ideally, the user should be able to set preferences on what she wants highlighted and read — characters (for MathML or other equations or for determining spellings), words only, words and sentences and/or paragraphs, etc. The user should be able easily to control progress of playback, that is the user should be able to move word-by-word or character-by-character. And the user should be able easily to control the rate of playback.
    • Accommodation: Device controls and software e-book reader shortcuts should be simple, intuitive, and of minimal number. Devices should prefer known, accepted, and, where appropriate, operating system specific-keyboard shortcuts. Iconography should also defer to the norm. For example, the “play button” control should use the accepted right-facing triangle icon.
    • Accommodation: The e-book reader should provide pagination that matches that of the original text. (This is essential for an education audience, particular.) When re-opening a book for a later reading session, page and location ought to be remembered by the reader.
    • Accommodation: The e-book reader should provide the ability for a user to set bookmarks, take notes, and set text highlights (preferably in multiple, user configurable colors).
    • Accommodation: The e-book reader should provide rich navigation — through tables of contents, search, indexes, internal links, and navigation of user notes and bookmarks, for example.
    • Accommodation: If the reader can be installed on/operates on multiple devices, progress through the book, notes, highlights, and bookmarks should synchronize across those instances/devices.
    • Accommodation: The e-book reader should provide word prediction/look-ahead during typing within notes or search and provide spelling correction/checking. The ability to look up in external resources and/or cross reference words is desirable.
    • Accommodation: Software e-book readers should target novice users of typical assistive technologies (AT). That is, can the product be used with readily available AT by users of average knowledge and skill in use of AT? (This is a criterion that applies to all of the categories of disability mentioned. The user should say of the software or device that interacting with it was “natural” and intuitive.)
    • Accommodation: If the e-book/e-textbook includes testing materials, there should be no time limitations on input.
  • Functional Limitation: Deaf and hard-of-hearing:
    • Accommodation: Any audio-only cues/alerts should have an obvious visual equivalent.
    • Accommodation: Devices and/or software should have the ability to provide synchronized captions for embedded videos/multimedia presentations.
    • Accommodation: A mono audio output option should be available so that users who may be deaf or hard-of-hearing in one ear can direct both audio channels to the hearing/less impaired ear.

Finally, there are a couple of global criteria that are not directly referenced in the listings above:

  • The e-book device/software should be able to be set up independently by the person with the disability, without need of additional assistance.
  • The e-book store, web-based or browseable from the device, should adhere to accessibility standards.

Overview of Common E-Book Reader Accessibility

The following is an accessibility overview of e-book reader technologies — devices and web-based and installed software. The evaluations do not attempt to be thorough. They provide a high-level summary only. Some other sources of e-book accessibility information: The Diagram Center maintains a product matrix of e-book hardware and software – external link, focusing on accessibility. There is also a Wikipedia page comparing e-book readers – external link, which mentions text-to-speech capability.

This overview was last updated October 7, 2011.

Web-Based E-Book Readers

Static HTML can very easily be made highly accessible and creative developers with some knowledge of accessibility can make dynamic web applications accessible, as well. This is why it is surprising that the major mainstream web-based e-book readers currently have poor accessibility, especially for screen reader users. Currently, the CourseSmart Reader, a textbook reader aimed primarily at higher education, is the only web-based reader with both a full feature set and good accessibility.

  • CourseSmart: CourseSmart is one of the largest higher education e-textbook publisher/distributors. Students can access books online or offline in a web browser using the CourseSmart Reader. The interface has usable keyboard-only navigation, but it is quite hard to follow keyboard focus and there is no ability to add notes or highlights to books using keyboard alone. The CourseSmart web page on accessibility – external link says that CourseSmart’s focus is on making their web-based reading experience accessible. Currently (October 2011), CourseSmart is maintaining two web-based readers. They look very similar, but the “accessible reader” disables the ability for the user to make highlights, a feature of the standard Reader, and includes the full text of the page, marked up in well-structured HTML, implemented so that the HTML text is available only to screen reader users. In the sample books we tested, text book graphics generally had accurate and well-authored alternative descriptions, and it was possible to discover navigation and book contents elements by moving through page headings. It is possible for a screen reader user to write a note and attach it to an entire page, functioning like a sort of annotated bookmark. The table of contents is cumbersome to use, though technically accessible. The table of contents is one of the main impediments to easy accessibility within the accessible version of the CourseSmart Reader. The regular, non-screen-reader-accessible Reader is what users get by default. Users can make requests for activation of the screen reader accessible Reader by emailing CourseSmart. On request, CourseSmart will also work to provide a well-marked up accessible version of any textbook in their catalog, if the user finds the current accessible version lacks rich markup. The VPAT for the web-based reader mentions that accessible facility for highlighting will be implemented in 2011.
  • Google eBooks: Google eBooks is Google’s answer to Amazon Kindle. Google eBooks is available on many platforms, including iPad and Android. In a web browser on a PC the book reading interface is fully accessible to the keyboard. It is possible to activate all of the buttons and perform searches and the books respond to expected keystrokes, such as right and left arrows for advancing pages and using the Escape key to exit dialogs. A visible outline follows cursor focus, so it is easy to see where you are in the interface. Currently, it is not possible to take notes or set bookmarks in Google eBooks, but this is a limitation for all users, not just users with disabilities. There is a trend in Google web applications currently to address screen reader access in phases. Google seems to be optimizing access for their own Chrome-based screen reader, ChromeVox, first. ChromeVox provides technical accessibility to Google eBooks, with some quirks. Using ChromeVox, the user can navigate controls, including advancing pages, navigating and setting settings, searching, and moving through the table of contents. However, the navigation is inconsistent — sometimes typical ChromeVox keystrokes work and sometimes the user must rely on non-screen reader keystrokes. For example, the user can navigate the Settings menu with ChromeVox Ctrl + Alt + arrow key keystrokes, but the Table of Contents requires use of the tab key to move between and read entries. This inconsistent behavior is non-intuitive. For commonly installed screen readers (NVDA, JAWS, VoiceOver) accessibility is poor at this point, though access is technically possible for page content. In “text reflow” view, the page content is selectable and navigable via the screen reader. However, we could find no way to advance pages while in the screen readers we tested with (Firefox with NVDA, JAWS with IE), and buttons and other controls are not accessible. There is also no native (in reader) ability to adjust type foreground-background contrast. Google eBooks is unique among readers in its ability to let the user view the original scanned book pages. eBooks also maintains fidelity to the print text page numbers.
  • Kindle Cloud Reader: This service came out of beta in the summer of 2011 and is currently only usable in Webkit-based browsers (Chrome, Safari). It is not possible to select text. So there is no way to set highlights or note take; however, you can set bookmarks and notes, bookmarks, highlights set in other Kindle applications are viewable and searchable in the Cloud Reader. Keyboard accessibility is limited: The cursor does not show focus and, though the right and left arrow keys advance pages, if the (non-visible) focus is lost, these keys cease to function. Cloud Reader is not usable with a screen reader.
  • McGraw-Hill HTMLBooks: Textbook publisher McGraw-Hill has a number of books (mostly K-12) available in what they call HTMLBooks editions. This web-based e-book reader is both screen reader and keyboard accessible, but it lacks many desirable study features, such as the ability to take notes and highlight.

PC and Mac Installed E-Book Readers

  • Adobe Digital Editions: The 1.8 preview version (released August 2011) is the first version of ADE to be in any measure accessible to a screen reader. The interface is fully accessible to the screen reader and book content is played via OS native TTS. The user can navigate between sentences with shortcut keys. It is possible to set a bookmark and to adjust read rate via keyboard shortcuts. ADE will read both non-DRM and DRM EPUB and ASCM files. ADE 1.8 preview has no facility for highlighting or note taking, yet.
  • Blio: Blio is a stand-alone e-book reader from Kurzweil Technologies, developers of leading AT for users with vision and cognitive disabilities, in partnership with the National Federation of the Blind (K-NFB). With such a pedigree one would imagine that accessibility would be high within the list of attributes of the product. However, when it Blio was first released in fall 2010 it was inaccessible to screen readers. After a couple of months two beta versions were released, each with better screen reader accessibility than the previous version. And now screen reader support is good for JAWS users — other screen readers are not yet supported. The application has good highlight and note-taking facility; however, these are not keyboard or screen reader accessible. Text can be selected, but notes or highlighting cannot be associated with text without use of the mouse. Blio supports a number of reading modes, some of which may be quite helpful to people with print disabilities, in particular “ReadLogic” mode and text-to-speech with synchronized highlighting of words. With ReadLogic, the user “zooms in” to a section of a page. Subsequent presses of the Return/Enter key move the reader progressively through a book. The features could be very helpful for users who have attention-related disabilities. The user gets books into Blio in two ways: either through the built in bookstore, which is made up of titles from Baker and Taylor’s catalogue of books, or by downloading free books from Google Books (not Google eBooks). Google downloaded books are converted behind the scenes to XPS books and all of the Baker and Taylor books are in XPS format. Unfortunately, at this point, few of the books that can be purchased through the bookstore have TTS enabled. Most purchased books support ReadLogic view, whereas the Google Books books do not support ReadLogic but do support TTS. Also, currently, the Baker and Taylor XPS books catalog is not terribly deep, especially compared to Google eBooks and Kindle.
  • gh ReadHear: ReadHear is a cross-platform (Mac and PC) DAISY book reader. As software overtly geared for users with print disabilities, including it in our review represents a departure from the mainstream devices and software we are discussing. Nevertheless, it might be seen as bridging between disability-specialty and mainstream: The software supports EPUB and gh is working on moving toward EPUB 3; additionally, an upcoming release of ReadHear will support Adobe DRM for EPUB book purchases. ReadHear has extremely refined accessibility for screen reader and other users with print disabilities — its entire interface and book contents can be voiced via TTS, with the book text having synchronized highlighting as an option during reading, without the use of a separate screen reader, and screen reader users can copy text and set bookmarks with notes. ReadHear is also currently the only DAISY/e-book player that supports access to MathML (via the Design Science MathPlayer plugin, which ships with ReadHear).
  • Kindle for PC with Accessibility Plugin: Kindle for PC with Accessibility Plugin was quietly released in February 2011. It is very similar to the standard Kindle for PC in appearance and costs the same — nothing, both applications are free. However in the “with Accessibility Plugin” version, you get the ability to access any Kindle book (currently the catalog is more than 900,000 books) via a screen reader and Amazon’s built in voices. The screen reader reads the e-book reader controls and the free, installed high-quality voices, one male, one female, speak book contents. Kindle for PC with Accessibility Plugin is the only mainstream e-book reader that allows a screen reader user to take notes within a book. Also the bookmark/highlight/notes browsing feature and the book search feature are accessible to both screen reader and keyboard only users. Fonts can be enlarged, high contrast enabled, and line length adjusted, thus giving many users with a wide variety of print disabilities a relatively effective reading experience. Both NVDA and JAWS are supported in this version of Kindle for PC. And many basic functions are available via keyboard shortcuts, including setting bookmarks, setting a note on a page, highlighting (an entire) page, adjusting reading rate, and announcing current position within a book. The user can navigate by sentence within pages or invoke a continuous reading mode. There are a couple of caveats about Kindle for PC with Accessibility Plugin: It is not clear that the accessibility enabled version of Kindle for PC is keeping pace with the standard Kindle for PC. Some evidence of this is that the accessible version does not have an option to display paper book-equivalent page numbers; whereas the standard version allows a user to orient herself or perform a text search, via page number. In the version we tested (1.3.0), though a user could set a note on text, it is not possible in the screen reader to edit or delete a note — the screen reader or keyboard-only user cannot focus and activate the Edit button of a note. Like other Kindle versions, user highlights, notes, and bookmarks synchronize across all Kindle book instances associated with the Amazon account.
  • Nook Study: The accessibility features of Nook Study need to be enabled by the user. She can turn on keyboard accessibility and the built in screen reader separately. It also supports keyboard shortcuts — for Find, to switch between the Library and Reading views, keys to advance pages, etc. Rather than make the interface directly accessible to an external screen reader, Nook Study’s approach has been to include a screen reader within the application itself. Users of screen readers such as JAWS, NVDA, or VoiceOver will need to mute their screen readers while using Nook Study, or the built in reader and the screen reader will talk over each other occasionally. It is not possible to highlight text with the built in screen reader, nor can you set a bookmark or take notes. Tables of contents can be difficult to navigate. The screen reader does not report whether or not an item that has been expanded to show child sub-sections is in an expanded state and there is no way to navigate a long table of contents other than using the tab key (or Shift + Tab to go backward through the table. The built-in screen reader will read pages top to bottom and remembers the user’s place on the page if paused and restarted. In-page navigation is limited to moving by sentence. It is not possible to set a bookmark using the built-in screen reader. In sum, the screen reader at this point seems more geared toward helping sighted users with reading/cognitive disabilities than toward enabling non-visual access. The user can set highlights, underline, and add question mark icons and notes on any selected text. Notes and selections can be shared with other Nook Study users via an auto-generated link. It is also possible to look up words or phrases in a variety of linked resources, including Google Scholar, Wikipedia, and Wolfram Alpha. The interface also allows the user to split the screen and have two books open at once, next to each other. One of the most userful features for students who can see the page but who have reading disabilities is the word by word synchronized highlighting. Outside of ReadHear, which is a disability-oriented reader, only Blio and Nook Study have a synchronized highlighting facility. Nook Study also can import any EPUB book and, if not protected by DRM, the EPUB enjoys all of the access features of a Nook/Barnes and Noble-purchased book, including read aloud with highlighting.
  • VitalSource Bookshelf: VitalSource Bookshelf has generally good accessibility. All of the menus, navigation, and bookmarking, highlighting, and note-taking features are available via the keyboard only, and many functions can be accessed via keyboard shortcuts. For highlighting, note-taking, and copying it is possible to get focus to the text contents of books to select text solely via the keyboard. Screen reader accessibility is likewise strong. All major functionality is accessible within a screen reader on both Mac and PC, though navigating around in the application can be a bit cumbersome, due to the large number of interface elements. Like most of the installed software e-book readers (with the exception of ReadHear) there is no support within the application for navigation via content structure. You cannot navigate via heading or other text markup and can only browse sections when in the table of contents. Also, with some books (what are called Picture Books and are based on PDF) content source order can be problematic — just because there is a logical visual flow does not mean the document source order is logical.and the screen reader follows the document source order. This problem is alleviated in what are referred to as XML Books, which are reflowable books marked in a proprietary XML VitalSource can consume. Students who rely on TTS should download the XML Book versions of books offered through VitalSource.

E-Book Reading Devices and Installed Software

Note that the Diagram Center (referenced above) surveys a number of mainstream e-book reader devices. As of October 2011, the product matrix lists only two devices as having accessibility. iPad/iPhone/iOS devices are identified as “reasonably” accessible. Kindle is identified as “somewhat” accessible.

  • Android installed e-book readers (Aldiko, Kindle, FBReader, Cool Reader, etc.): Android has severe screen reader accessibility problems. For example, its default browser and email program are not available to TTS. Code Factory’s Mobile Accessibility, to date the most comprehensive attempt to make Android accessible, contains its own custom browser and email program to compensate for Android inadequacies. Unlike iPad, the Android touch screen does not interoperate with the Android screen reader, and the user must use a hardware directional pad or rollerball — something that is not on all Android devices. Many were hoping that the long awaited tablet-oriented “Honeycomb” release of Android would address some of the accessibility problems, but Honeycomb includes no improvements, and the lack of physical controls on Android tablets — keyboard, back button, home button, etc., which are on many Android phones — further exacerbates the problem. Code Factory’s Mobile Accessibility includes virtual d-pad which maps the directional pad to the touch screen, but it is not currently available separately in the Android Market (and, obviously, is not part of the Android operating system by default). Google has begun to address access issues with other of their products (Gmail, Calendar, Sites, Docs), and the disability community is hoping for improvements in future releases. At the 2011 International Technology & Persons with Disabilities Conference (a.k.a., CSUN), Google held multiple focus group sessions and a public session that discussed Android accessibility. On the e-book front, accessibility-focused Apps4Android company has been developing an accessible, TTS-capable version of the Cool Reader e-book reader – external link, but as of October 2011 there has been no public release.
  • iPad/iPhone (iOS devices): In iOS there is a globally activated high-contrast mode (“White on Black”) and the touch screen can allow device and software access by a user who has little fine motor control. The VoiceOver screen reader that is built into iOS devices works very well with the operating system and TTS does not need to be enabled by the publisher for a book to be accessible to VoiceOver. At this point iPad and iPhone have no peer in terms of accessibility on mobile devices. As a result of the well-thought through accessibility of iOS and the work of conscientious developers, we also are seeing a number of accessible e-book reader options. There are even a few disability-oriented e-book readers available in the iOS App Store. iOS does have a few accessibility deficiencies: Magnification/Zoom and the VoiceOver screen reader are separate modes of access and do not work simultaneously. It is also currently not possible to select text for copying, highlighting, or adding notes within the major book applications, while using VoiceOver. This is a relatively major deficiency, especially for use in secondary and post-secondary education. Accessible e-readers on iOS devices are:
    • Apple iBooks: Through iBooks it is possible to purchase and download books, browse the Library of downloaded books, and have good access to the text in books while using VoiceOver. All significant interface controls are accessible via VoiceOver, and it is possible to set bookmarks using VoiceOver. When book page content is reached, the entire page is read aloud from start to finish. It is possible to stop and resume the reading by tapping the screen. Dragging a finger down the page skims content line by line, but there is no sentence- or paragraph-based movement by right or left swipe, as in some of the other readers. Using the rotor it is possible to progress word by word or character by character.
    • Blio: Blio for iPad is the counterpart to Blio for Windows and both are products of a collaboration between Kurzweil Technologies, orginator of popular AT, and the National Federation of the Blind (NFB). Read2Go and Blio are the only e-book readers on the iPad that will voice book text with synchronized highlighting. And Blio is the only purely mainstream e-book reader with this functionality. Books bought through the Blio store provide audio playback so long as the publisher allows it, and the number of publishers enabling TTS is increasing. Also, any EPUB book imported into Blio will play with synchronized highlighting. Blio can also read PDF books, but there is no read aloud functionality available with PDF books. Blio is free; however, voices for it must be purchased (in the app). Blio also has good support for VoiceOver for any books purchased through the bookstore and for imported EPUB books, though PDF books are inaccessible to VoiceOver. VoiceOver reading for accessible books allows for navigation by paragraph (via right or left swipe motion) and via character and word (dependent on rotor setting). The interface is simple and easy to navigate and includes VoiceOver hints in key places to provide extra context. Original book pagination is maintained only in XPS-format books, whereas EPUB books are, as is typical for EPUB books, reflowed. It is possible with the XPS books also to overlay human-voiced audio (an example of this is installed when Blio installs).
    • Google Books: The Google eBooks reader for iPad, called Google Books, was up until a late summer release inaccessible. The latest versions, however, have good accessibility with VoiceOver. All the interface items are easy reached and used, including the table of contents, search, and settngs menus. Google Books has no ability for highlighting, note-taking, or bookmarking, though progress in is synchronzed across platforms, so it is relatively easy to use the reader on iPad and switch to your laptop without losing your place. Page navigation is by paragraph or, using the rotor, by line, word, or character. Line-based VoiceOver navigation is buggy, sometimes failing to read focused lines.
    • Inkling: Inkling for iPad is a textbook-focused e-book reader. Inkling has good accessibility in iPad. Particularly nice is the ability to have reasonably good access to the “jump to page,” search, and glossary features. It is also relatively easy to quickly browse the sections of a book via the “spine.” It will take practice for a VoiceOver-reliant user to orient herself to the navigational structure of the reader, since it is somewhat complicated — spine and other navigation is located in the far left and is most easily discovered by dragging a finger down the left of the screen, chapters load into the left-hand panel and are replaced by sub-section headings as the user navigates deeper in the book, and when page content loads it consumes the whole screen. This dynamically changing nature of the interface may cause some confusion. We also found some content playback order problems, specifically, when navigating a book page with multiple columns, the content did not always read in a proper order, jumping from main content to sidebar content occasionally. Still, it is clear Inkling has done a lot of work to make their e-book reader accessible. This is evident in the fact that in-book quizzing in the sample book that loads when you install the product can be used easily and effectively with VoiceOver. Inkling has good facility for note-taking, search, highlighting, and bookmarking. The user has a “Notebook” for each book, which contains user notes, highlights, and bookmarks, each searchable and sortable in this interface. The Notebook is browseable by VoiceOver. Though, as with all e-book readers on iPad, VoiceOver users will have little luck highlighting or taking notes and even setting bookmarks may prove difficult.
    • Read2Go: Read2Go is Bookshare’s disability-focused, DAISY-format e-book reader for iPad. It is currently the most accessible e-book reader for iPad, providing solid performance with VoiceOver and having built-in read-aloud facility with syncrhonized sentence- and word-by-word highlighting using two high-quality synthetic voices, which are installed by default. Reading with VoiceOver allows for sentence by sentence navigation (via right/left swiping) in addition to rotor-activated fine-grained word and character navigation. Currently it is possible only to bookmark; there is no ability to take notes or add user highlights. One of the biggest drawbacks for a mainstream audience is that Read2Go only reads DAISY format books. While DAISY is the current de facto accessible book format, EPUB books are far more widely available. Read2Go also currently does not support any DRM book formats, which may negatively impact acceptance within the commercial book space.
    • VitalSource Bookshelf: VitalSource’s e-textbook reader has basic accessibility with VoiceOver. Buttons are properly labeled and the search and table of contents interfaces can be navigated and used (though the Go To Page input field is not properly labeled and its activation “Go” precedes the input, making it somewhat unintuitive). VoiceOver access to book contents is limited by a number of factors. First, the books are PDF based. This is generally a decent visual experience (though Zoom may be necessary, since there is no reflow option) and pagination of the original source is maintained. However, VoiceOver performance is hurt by navigability and quality of playback. On entering a page, playback begins at the top of the page and is continuous until the end is reached. Pausing playback and restarting will return you to the beginning of the page — your place in the reading is not maintained. Additionally, depending on the books underlying text structure, you may encounter pronunciation issues. For example, any hyphenated word was spoken as two word fragments and certain words within a line were completely uninterpretable — in the book we tested, “influence” was always read as “I N F luence”. It is possible to move in books by line, word, and character, depending on rotor setting. Though this slows playback for difficult sections of reading, the line by line approach is inferior to, say, Read2Go’s sentence-based approach. And it it clear from playback quality that VoiceOver is reading a text composed of lines as logical units: There are distinct mid-sentence pauses introduced at the end of each line of text. For users who can see the screen and have full dexterity, notes and highlights can be set and they synchronize with other instances of VitalSource (on your PC or Mac, for instance).
    • Note: None of the other mainstream popular e-book readers — Kindle, Stanza, Nook — is accessible on iOS.
  • Kindle Fire: Scheduled for release in November 2011, documentation does not indicate that the Fire has TTS, and there is no mention of any other accessibility-oriented functionality.
  • Kindle Keyboard and Kindle Touch: The second generation Kindle was the device universities and colleges were sued for piloting (see the discussion in our chapter in NSR2). In the third generation Kindle, Amazon added the ability to have the menus narrated by a synthetic voice. This addressed the problem to some degree; however, there are a number of drawbacks to using the Kindle 3 (now called Kindle Keyboard) with users who rely on speech output for device interaction and/or reading or who have upper body mobility disabilities. First, it is not possible to enable speech access to the device menus without sighted assistance. This is the case with both Kindle Keyboard and Kindle Touch. Second, navigation on Kindle Keyboard is controlled by very small directional and functional keys and notes are entered via a small rectangular QWERTY keyboard. Though the buttons would be accessible and learnable for a non-visual user with practice, they would not be very simple to use for anyone with moderate to severe hand sensory limitation, and non-visual typing, for taking notes, for example, would be very difficult or impossible — neither Kindle voices the keyboard key presses or is able to read back user text input. For general use by users who can see the screen, the new virtual keyboard in the Kindle Touch appears to be better than the hardware keyboard. The keyboard layout is standard (with staggered key alignments, as opposed to the rectangle layout on the Kindle Keyboard) and the virtual keys are larger and easier to distinguish visually. Finally the text-to-speech in some books has difficulty detecting the end of a paragraph and tends to run paragraphs together without pausing, which may cause comprehension problems for many users with print disabilities, and it is important to remember that the TTS is only available in the Kindle devices if the publisher has granted rights (or the book is out of copyright).
  • Nook: No built-in screen reader. Nook does have contrast settings and ability enlarge text in reflowable books.
  • Sony eReader: No built-in screen reader. Sony eReader does have contrast and text size settings.

[i] The original source of this article is