I was excited by the thought that I could finally afford a tablet computer. Amazon’s Kindle Fire is $199, just about within reach of a poor freelancer – and a lot more tempting than the $500+ iPad2.
The American Council for the Blind are less excited, denouncing Kindle Fire as inaccessible for blind people.
I hope that’s not entirely true. The best bit about emerging technologies is that they tend to be inclusive. The internet allows people in remote corners of far-flung countries access to the same basic resources as New York office workers. Laptops enable people with disabilities to work more easily from home. Blind people can read documents online rather than seek out Braille or audio versions. There are iPad apps which help children with learning disabilities communicate. And so on.
So what’s wrong with the Kindle Fire?
We don’t know until it’s out on November 15th, but previous Kindles have had problems with the fact that its Voice Guide and Text-To-Speech features don’t enable blind users to buy e-books from the Kindle Store. It seems an obvious oversight on Amazon’s part to exclude blind users from its store – this wouldn’t be a tough fix for a web company that’s just developed a whole new browser. So it makes me suspect that the Text-To-Speech feature is more for the benefit of sighted users with tired eyes than for blind users with no other option.
The other major problem with Kindle accessibility is not something Amazon can solve alone. Publishers can choose not to enable the Text-To-Speech feature on their e-book. I can’t find reliable statistics about how many publishers allow Text-To-Speech and how many don’t. But it’s big enough to be a problem for blind people, and again it seems silly to exclude a subset of potential readers for no discernible reason.
I’m curious to see how the Kindle Fire improves on previous versions of Amazon’s e-reader, for blind people particularly. Curious enough to buy it – possibly. It’s not quite the Apple iPad, is it? Plus, there’s the disadvantage that Kindle Fire is only available, and only works, in the U.S. According to Amazon there are currently no plans to release an international Kindle Fire. Is that because they want to test the beta version on Americans before rolling out an improved version in a few months?