Text to speech in new $80 Kindle demolishes lobbyists’ case against legally required TTS

Never mind the needs of blind people or others with print-related impairments.

Outrageously the Federal Communications Commission can’t or won’t require E Ink e-readers to include accessibility features such as text to speech.

TTS would be a godsend for people ranging from the blind to the dyslexic—not to mention commuters and exercisers. So why isn’t it mandatory? Lobbyists for companies such as Amazon have claimed that the existing FCC waiver from TTS “advances the availability of e-readers as single-purpose” devices.

But guess which company last week demolished that excuse? None other than Amazon itself, with the introduction of Bluetooth-based TTS in the $80 Kindle. Blind people will be able to use Bluetooth headphones to hear the TTS via a wireless connection—no special adapter needed. Of course the Kindle 2 came with built-in TTS years ago, and other Amazon dedicated readers followed, even if the company later regressed. Still, the new $80 E Ink model makes it still clearer that cost isn’t a factor—not when the technology is so cheap. Nor is size or weight a consideration. The new basic E Ink Kindle weighs less than six ounces and also is smaller than most other Amazon readers.

At the same time, the TTS in the $80 Kindle does not offer a full restoration of the capability present in the Kindle 2; the interface is optimized for the blind only. While blind people should come first, Amazon still has made it awkward for the sighted people, including print-impaired individuals such as dyslexics and older people with fading vision, to use the TTS.

This needs to change. Either at the FCC or through legislation, we need to eliminate the interpretation of the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 (CVAA) saying Amazon and friends get off the hook because E Ink-based readers are not “advanced communications services.”

Furthermore, the FCC should unequivocally require interfaces for both the blind and the sighted, especially the dyslexic and others with print-related impairments. In fact, TTS should be a basic right of all readers. It’s a consumer issue and even a public health issue. Don’t we want Americans to be able to jog and enjoy books, even those not available in audiobook editions? Via DRM, publishers could still restrict access access to TTS for individual books. I loathe DRM. But if we must suffer it, this is one area where it could be useful.

I know. The Fire LCD tablets with TTS for all—both blind and sighted people—sell for as little as $50 or less. But they come with multimedia distractions, the very stuff that E Ink readers lack; dedicated readers can be more useful to children and others with attention deficit issues and an unwillingness or inability to switch off the distractions. Furthermore, people may want to use TTS to get into a book, then switch to regular reading. Yes, booklovers may want and even need to enjoy books in different ways. Many people say that E Readers offer less strain on the eyes and interfere less with sleep than just-before-bedtime use of LCD tablets do. The blue-light filters may or may not work in all cases. What’s more, E Ink readers are thriftier with batteries.

On top of everything else, industry studies suggest that owners of E Ink readers buy a lot more books than the population at large. You can argue cause vs. effect. Still, as I myself would see it, E Ink does promote reading of books in this multimedia age. However much I also favor the use of cell phones for reading, we need as many e-reading options as possible—especially when so many young people want a break away from the glow of LCDs. E-readers are “screens,” granted. But the experience is more paper-like.

Mind you, TTS isn’t the only area where the e-reader industry needs accessibility regulations. How about all-text bolding and other font options that Amazon stubbornly refuses to include in Kindles? It’s fine for Amazon to include the Open Dyslexic Font in Kindles. But that is hardly going to solve the problems of all people with learning disabilities, including even some with dyslexia. They may, for example, need all-text bold as well.

When e-readers present text less than optimally, students’ brains must devote more resources to the processing of the text at the expense of absorption of the actual content, whether it be Shakespeare or a math textbook. We’re talking about millions of children and others here. “70-80% of people with poor reading skills are likely dyslexic,” the nonprofit Dyslexia Center of Utah says in summing up research. “One in five students, or 15-20% of the population, has a language based learning disability. Dyslexia is the most common of the language based learning disabilities.” Also see statistics from the American Dyslexia Association.

Of course, some would say that accessibility laws covering devices for school and library use is enough. But individual consumers may still fall through the cracks. Leave it to Amazon and other companies to figure out ways. Simply put, we need the FCC either to interpret the CVAA in a more pro-consumer manner or else recommend the tweaking of the law specifically to describe e-readers as “advanced communications services.” Dedicated e-readers do, after all, use interstate infrastructure to transmit e-book files to consumers. And who says that “communications” needs to be two ways? Beyond that, Amazon has been letting people e-mail files to Kindles, and baking in social media capabilities.

A major reason for the rise of the demagogue Donald Trump has been the cozy and oft-corrupt relationships between Washington officialdom and lobbyists. I’m confident that The Donald doesn’t give a squat about e-readers. But Washington’s arrogant disregard of the needs of the country, in regard to accessibility, especially when lack of it can wreak havoc with K-12 students’ performance in schools, is one more example of the disconnect between D.C. and Americans at large.

Editor’s note – this article represents the views of the author, and is republished with permission of the author from his site, TeleRead.

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