Amazon.com Inc. will add two features to its Kindle eBook reader to make the gadget more accessible to blind and visually impaired students and other users.

The company’s Dec. 7 announcement comes a month after Syracuse University in New York and the University of Wisconsin-Madison said they would not consider widely deploying the device as an alternative to paper textbooks until Amazon makes it easier for blind students to use. (See "Schools protest Kindle’s setup for the blind.") Both universities bought some Kindles to test this fall.

The Kindle has a read-aloud feature that could be a boon to blind students and those with other disabilities (such as dyslexia), but turning it on requires navigating through screens of text menus.

Amazon on Dec. 7 said it is working on audible menus, which would let the Kindle speak menu options out loud. It’s also working on an extra-large font for people with impaired vision. The additions should reach the Kindle next summer, Amazon said.

Chris Danielsen, a spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind, said the organization doesn’t know enough about the new features to say whether they adequately address concerns of the blind community. But, he said, it’s a good sign Amazon is expressing commitment to improve the Kindle.

Amazon earlier this year released the $489 Kindle DX, a large-screen model aimed at textbook and newspaper readers. Several colleges, including Arizona State University, are testing the gadget this academic year and sending feedback to the company.

The federation of the blind, which is based in Baltimore, teamed up with another advocacy group, the American Council of the Blind, to sue Arizona State in an attempt to block it from using the Kindle as a way to distribute electronic textbooks, because the devices can’t be used by blind students. (See "Kindle pilot is discriminatory, advocates charge.")

It also filed complaints with the Justice Department against five other schools participating in the Kindle trial with Amazon: Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va., Pace University in New York, Princeton University in Princeton, N.J., and Reed College in Portland, Ore.

Syracuse University and the University of Wisconsin were not among the pilot-test schools.

Danielsen declined to comment when asked if Amazon’s proposed changes would lead the federation to abandon its complaints.

Even as the advocacy groups push for greater read-aloud capabilities, the Authors Guild has expressed concern that the feature will hurt sales of audio books. So Amazon has given publishers and authors the ability to silence the text-to-speech function for their books.

Links:

National Federation of the Blind

American Council of the Blind

Authors Guild


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