Amazon's Kindle is common enough in American life to be "the Official E-reader of the National PTA." But it could enrich the lives of many more people if recent E Ink models weren't missing text to speech (TTS) technology. TTS costs next to nothing and was available in earlier Kindles, starting with the Kindle 2.
With TTS, blind kids could hear new Kindles read "Alice in Wonderland" to them. Or how about read-aloud for people with severe dyslexia? Or commuters, or exercisers living out Michelle Obama's "Let's move" slogan?
The Federal Communications Commission could have unmuted Kindles. Yet on Jan. 28, the FCC granted Amazon and other e-reader makers another year-long waiver from the 21st Century Communications and Video Access Act (CVAA). This 2010 law requires covered products to be usable by Americans with disabilities, including blind people.
I won't swallow the FCC's rationale that it may grant Amazon an accessibility waiver because the Kindle's primary purpose is not as an "advanced communication device." Sighted people can send Gmail (via a Kindle Web browser) or read long e-mailed files in the e-book mode as if they are books. Also, Amazon could afford read-aloud in earlier E Ink Kindles without going into bankruptcy. Millions of e-readers have been sold, and their makers shouldn't be able to dodge the accessibility act. As described by Sen. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, the CVAA is to "provide full access for Americans with disabilities to the technological tools vital to complete participation in 21st century society." More and more libraries and schools offer e-books, so Kindles and the like certainly should be covered here.
Bringing back TTS to Kindles could cost less per e-reader than a Big Mac. The related microchips are dirt cheap, and Amazon even owns Ivona, makers of text-to-speech software. And a headphone jack? Hardly a design problem. A thicker "lip" just at the bottom of the case could allow for a jack in the thinnest Kindle. Or Amazon could simply use an extra-thin jack and offer an adapter for people to plug in ordinary headphones or ear buds. But now text to speech is AWOL even from the $200 Amazon Voyage, billed as a deluxe reader. Apparently TTS doesn't count as "reading." If nothing else, read-aloud can be a godsend for power readers with tired eyes.
Aggravating matters, Amazon has not added an all-text bolding option for older Americans, like me, who can read better with more perceived contrast between text and background. Missing, too, is a font for dyslexic users.
Granted, TTS is available on iPads, cell phones and such, but not everyone wants a tablet or smart phone. E-Ink readers have longer battery lives and are generally cheaper, and the newest screens are lit up from the front to avoid the usual glare when you're reading with your eyes.
Having written on e-book-related matters since the early 1990s, I can tell you that Amazon actually would come out ahead with the restoration of audio to E Ink Kindles. It makes money off content, not just devices. And TTS means that people would have more time to enjoy books. They could start them on the jogging path in audio and finish them the usual way. Furthermore, related audio capabilities in new E Ink Kindles would broaden the market for audiobooks from Amazon's Audible division.
I'm a huge fan of Amazon's better side — I buy most of my electronics there — but the read-aloud muting reminds me of another blunder: the overpriced, over-featured Amazon phone. Other steady customers can join me in complaining to email@example.com.
Amazon donated at least 1,000 Kindles to the National PTA in return for an endorsement as "The Official E-reader of the National PTA," and at my suggestion, the organization is laudably asking to discuss accessibility issues with Amazon.
Even If the e-reader companies and the FCC wise up, we should make the 2010 legislation more lobbyist-proof. Same for other disability laws that could help school kids and other e-reader users and potential users. How about it, Senator Markey? Remember — in your days in the House of Representatives, you helped write the CVAA. Let's finish the job.
David H. Rothman runs LibraryCity.org, a library advocacy site calling for a national digital library endowment, and founded the TeleRead e-book site now owned by North American Publishing. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.