E-Reader Accessibility and Higher Education

by Steve Sullivan

Over the past few years more and more people are trading in their traditional paper based books for e-readers like the Amazon Kindle, Barnes and Noble Nook, Sony Reader, and others. Some are using reader apps like iBooks, the Kindle Reader app, or the Google Reader app on their computers, iPads, or smart phones. E-readers are lightweight, paperless, and relatively inexpensive, and ebooks are usually cheaper than traditional books, especially textbooks.

Many colleges and universities are beginning to replace textbooks with e-readers, and this raises several accessibility issues. For example, in 2009 the National Federation for the Blind and the American Council for the blind filed a lawsuit against Arizona State University because of its plan to require students to use the Kindle Reader. The complaint basically stemmed from the fact that the Kindle Reader is not completely accessible to the blind. See the following post from the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Wired Campus for details regarding this and other cases, as well as how the department of education is responding.

Interestingly, the use of e-readers is a huge step in the right direction regarding accessibility.  While none of the e-readers are completely accessible (and some are more accessible than others), all of them are more accessible than a traditional book. For a comparison of e-readers and accessibility go to http://arstechnica.com/gadgets/news/2010/08/for-visually-impaired-most-e-readers-barely-measure-up.ars

As a user with low vision, my personal preference is the Kindle reader. I am able to read comfortably by enlarging the font size on a standard Kindle or the Kindle DX. While it is sometimes convenient to have a portable e reader, the most efficient way for me to read is using the Kindle app on my computer.  I typically use the screen magnifier on my Mac computer to be able to see what I’m doing. Using the screen magnifier requires a lot of zooming in and out and moving constantly with the mouse. The Kindle app allows me to enlarge the font and read without having to continuously adjust the zoom or move the mouse. This is the closest I have ever come to making my reading experience like that of someone with normal eyesight.

That being said, even the Kindle Reader is not totally accessible for someone who is totally blind. The assistance of someone with eyesight would still be necessary for important features like navigating stored books, downloading books, etc.  Therefore, I always recommend the iPad for someone who is blind as a feasible and equal e-reader alternative. It is accessible right out of the box with impressive features for people with vision impairment and blindness, including a fully functional screen reader and a screen magnifier. These fully functional programs are integrated into the original design of the operating system and allow for seamless implementation and superior performance.

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