Ebook readers – choice for disabled people 'not good enough'

Connections talks to Robin Christopherson, Head of Digital Inclusion at AbilityNet, about ebooks and their benefits for people with disabilities.

Robin, there's no doubt that ebooks have taken off in a major way – but what makes them especially good for people with disabilities?

Books in general are obviously a real lifeline for disabled people. People with visual impairments have always been very disadvantaged in terms of access, historically often relying on Braille or audio books. Now the way that some ebooks are presented can give readers a choice of using text-to-speech, (TTS) Braille, or magnification. There are around 100,000 registered blind people currently in the UK, so this isn't just a niche market.

Or if you think about people who want to read but have movement difficulties and maybe aren't able to easily turn a paper page, being able to just touch a screen to move through a book is a fantastic breakthrough.

And because you can customise how you see the text, ebooks are also really helpful for people with some cognitive difficulties or dyslexia.

Books expand opportunities for education and learning new skills, as well as being able to read for pleasure of course. Access to computers in general has been very empowering and we should probably think about having access to ebooks as equally important. But at the moment the choice of ebooks available to readers with disabilities just isn't as wide as it should be and we need to change that.

So what are the current barriers to accessibility when it comes to ebooks? Are they related to the technology or is it more a lack of understanding by providers in how they are designed?

There are really two main aspects to this. Firstly, it's about making ebooks more accessible – and secondly it's about the platforms and finding the best ones to read them on.

I don't think the technology is to blame for a lack of accessibility. There are certainly a lot of different file formats, devices, and platforms which give varying levels of accessibility and different ways of accessing them, but things are getting better.

The most common ebook format, ePub 3, is an open format and if it's used well it can be highly accessible as it provides inclusive text, images with labels and interactive links. But, as with so many things that relate to accessibility – like websites, or even ramps into buildings – it's not always used well. There are some excellent guidelines published by the International Digital Publishing Forum and publishers need to understand more about these so they can really make the most of ePub's potential for inclusivity.

To add to this, the Digital Accessible Information SYstem (DAISY) brings a greater level of accessibility to ePub 3 because it synchronises text and voice. This makes it easy to move through the book by chapter or page, search for text (not usually possible in an audiobook), and switch easily between reviewing the text and listening to a human recording of a book. More use could definitely be made of DAISY by everyone, not just those with an impairment, to give you the choice of listening as well as the ability to search and select text.

Attitudes to provision of ebooks can be slightly more problematic than the technology. For example, when first entering the ebook space Amazon was roundly condemned regarding its Kindle devices and applications because they had no accessibility features like TTS capability. Then when TTS was added, authors and publishers complained that their copyright was being infringed (but mostly with their eyes firmly fixed on their lucrative audiobook market) – Amazon bowed under the pressure, and TTS was removed. Thankfully it was later reinstated, due in part to pressure from charities like the RNIB.

I suppose in summary, existing formats like ePub 3 and DAISY help to do the job of accessibility pretty well. As with all things there's room for improvement, but the real difficulties come when publishers or authors aren't aware of its potential for accessibility or choose not to care enough to implement it effectively – or at all.

In terms of platforms then, what are the key things people wanting to buy an accessible device should look for and is there somewhere you'd recommend for advice?

In the end, as with most technology, it's a very personal choice depending on your needs, and many ebook readers offer lots of features for screen reader users, keyboard-only users, and voice recognition users. These range from screen magnification and TTS to controls that are tactile and easily identifiable by touch, to being able to be controlled entirely by a single switch.

The most well-known reader is probably the wide range of Amazon Kindle devices which are very portable, but most tablets you buy now include the Kindle application and many offer more accessibility features than the dedicated Kindle devices. Personally, I think that i-devices in general, particularly iPads, are the most broadly accessible, and they too have book reading software already installed – it’s called 'iBooks' and can read ebooks both proprietary and mainstream.

There are also dedicated book readers such as the Kobo Touch ereader but these offer even less in the way of accessibility options. Helpfully, most will synchronise across your various devices – for example, you can pick up from where you left off in a book you're reading on an iPad on another Kindle device but, if these devices aren't accessible, then it's a non-starter.

As a great starting point, I would recommend the RNIB website page which outlines all the various devices and their features that are out there now.

How do you see the future for ebook accessibility in terms of trends and any new features that are likely to be enabled?

As more people demand the potential of ePub 3, more truly multi-media ebooks will become available – exhibiting much more of the potential ePub has to offer than simple embedded links and images.

In the academic world iBooks are currently the preferred format, particularly in the US where iPad use is more common. If you think of a medical text book that might contain video footage of a dissection, or lots of complex interactive diagrams, they can be anything up to 2GB in size. That's large, so publishers will need to keep a keen eye on compression. We already see providers like Audible maintain an excellent quality of spoken books using quite high levels of compression. So the capability is there; again it's about using the formats to their best advantage.

Now as people are consuming content in a number of different ways, on the move, on tiny screens, even maybe via Google Glass, one of the big challenges is to be able to switch between reading and listening to a book. So if you want to start reading a book and then switch to listening to it – say, as you get in the car – the synchronisation of that needs to happen in the way that DAISY can already provide. Of course Kindle apps do this using text and TTS, but then the issue becomes about the quality of the sound - because robotic voices are just not pleasant to listen to for pleasure. Things are getting better though. For example, on the Mac the TTS (called 'Alex') is easy on the ear, includes natural pauses and even draws breath between phrases, and, as small a change as this is, it makes a real difference to the listener's ability to 'suspend disbelief' whilst listening and be fooled into thinking that it isn't really a robot who's talking. Moreover Apple's mobile operating system 'iOS 7, due for release in September or October, will come shipped with 'Nuance Vocalizer Expressive' which takes believability much further with incredibly naturalistic-sounding text to speech.

So I suppose I might sum up the ideal future for ebooks as being where accessibility moves into usability, but ultimately turns into enjoyability for all. This requires the same ebooks to be available in accessible formats on every platform for everyone. There aren't any major technical reasons that prevent this from happening and at AbilityNet we'll carry on pushing to achieve ebook equality for all. 


We're here to help

Go to our Help and support section for tips and advice on making this site easier to use, using our services, understanding impairments, and contacting us. To get in touch right now, use the Email, Chat or BSL links.