kidKindleI’ve begged Jeff Bezos and crew to restore text to speech to E Ink Kindles. A decent selection of fonts—including the all-bold ones dear to me—would also help.

Those specifics may or may not have counted, but whatever the exact accessibility reasons, the New York City Department of Education has postponed Amazon’s $30M K-12 e-book contract for public schools. So says the Daily News.

As reported in the News, the department was acting in response to the National Federation of the Blind. The federation, says the News, warned that “visually handicapped students would have trouble using Amazon’s devices to navigate e-books and access graphics.

“The group had planned a protest to coincide with a Panel for Educational Policy meeting, but organizers canceled the protest after the city postponed the vote.”

The NFB’s press release is here.

Are Amazon’s K-12 challenges in NYC a form of fallout from the New York Times’s expose of working conditions among Amazon’s white-collar workers? Public officials in education and other areas have been known to read the papers. And the NYT-depicted Amazon was far from warm and fuzzy.

Meanwhile congratulations to the Education Department for doing the right thing even if it needed a nudge from the NFB. Now I’m waiting for the leaders of the National PTA to catch up. So far the PTA has valued its business relationship with Amazon over accessibility needs. The Kindle is the “official e-Reader” of the organization. The PTA has ignored the NFB’s pleas over the years for the organization to care more about accessibility. Let’s hope that the K-12 group changes under the new president, Laura Bay  (from Washington state, location of Amazon headquarters). If not, I recommend the PTA as the site of the next threatened protest. I live in Alexandria, VA, just a few miles from the PTA, and would eagerly picket with the NFB.

Text to speech chips and audio navigation would cost a pittance to add to mass-produced E Ink Kindles. The expense of all-bold fonts, or an all-bolding capability for all fonts, would be close to zero.

Lack of action on these fronts is corporate arrogance at its worst. It’s also plain dumb, from a dollars-and-cents perspective. Amazon’s marketers have been so caught up in the “smaller and lighter” mantra for e-readers that they’ve neglected basics that could expand the Kindle market, especially in K-12. Look beyond the existing users and show a little guts, please. Think of all the millions of American schoolchildren with dyslexia and other learning disabilities beyond visual impairments per se. How obtuse can Jeff and his marketers be?

As for the New York contract, one compromise as I see it might be for the NFB to be flexible about the immediate situation, with the understanding that Kindles used in K-12 and elsewhere would get TTS and decent audio navigation and font selections within a certain time frame.

My standard reminder: I very much appreciate Amazon’s positives, such as its exemplary customer service and the overall quality of its hardware despite omission of some crucial accessibility features. I’m a steady customer. But the lack of TTS, despite the ease of restoring it to E Ink Kindles, fits in very well with the the Times’ portray of it as less than fully caring.

(Via InfoDocket.)


  1. While I personally think that text to speech and bold text are fantastic options, lack of these features are not the basis of the Federation of the Blind’s objection. They are clearly stated in August 13th’s direct letter. In short the letter states that the conversion that Amazon uses to make Epub books work on Kindles strips away much of the navigational and chart functionality that was originally formatted into the books.
    see your infodocket link…

  2. @Steve: Great to see you share my concerns about TTS and bold. Yes, they could well be issues, based on my past conversations with the NFB. And that’s not all. From the August 7 letter: “Despite repeated requests by the National Federation of the Blind and other organizations, Amazon has spent the better part of a decade producing devices, platforms, and e-books that are entirely inaccessible or minimally accessible to blind and print-disabled users who rely on text-to-speech and/or Braille output..

    That said, you’re correct to bring up the format stripping issue—endlessly important. Thanks for making sure that comes out. Here’s language from the letter of August 13:

    “Unlike the ePub3 file format that publishers deliver to Amazon and other distributors, the Kindle e-books file format does not support Math Markup Language (‘MathML’), a markup language for mathematical and scientific content developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (‘W3C’) that, among other things, makes digital mathematical and scientific notations accessible to screen readers.2

    “In sum, Kindle books are wholly unsuited for the rigors of the classroom, whether in a purely verbal subject, such as English, or a STEM subject requiring mathematical and scientific notation, such as biology. By contrast, there are many other distributors that, unlike Amazon, sell digital books in the ePub3 format used by major publishers. These ePub3-formatted books provide blind and other print-disabled students and faculty the same rich reading experience as their nondisabled peers.”


  3. I wonder, though, how much of this is the National Federation for the Blind falling into a “perfect is the enemy of good” mode. I too wish Amazon had kept TTS, but surely there are many reading-impaired students who would benefit from resizable text when compared to the status quo of printed books.
    And the complaint about lack of MATHML support is bizarre. Yes, it’s part of EPUB 3, but almost no one supports it. The links to MATHML compliant software on the W3 MATHML site is quite low, and most of the EPUB3 links point to projects in progress that have only achieved minor progress.
    Even among full-fledged web browsers, only Firefox supports MATHML, and it supports only the low-level presentation layer, not the content layer which contains the cues that would support viable TTS, There are cross-browser Javascript packages (e.g., MathJax), but these work by replacing the MATHML in a web page by visual content that, again, loses the cues needed for TTS.
    I think we’ll be waiting a long time (at least the length of the NYC contract) before we see MATHML support in common e-reading devices.

  4. @Steve: “Perfect” and “Good” needn’t be at odds when it comes to TTS in E Ink Kindles. The costs just aren’t that great. TTS chips are dirt-cheap. There are answers to related navigational issues.

    > but surely there are many reading-impaired students who would benefit from resizable text when compared to the status quo of printed books.

    Text size is just one issue. On one particular matter I myself have special needs—for all-bold for optimal readability. Amazon has been deaf to my pleas for that option even though the per-unit expense would be next to nothing. The design issues just aren’t that great. Robotic adherence to KISS is the only explanation I can think of.

    As for Math ML, I’ll leave that for NFB to answer. However, please note that blind groups have worked closely with standards organizations—increasing the chances that advocates for the blind will be realistic in their expectations.

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