The Sorry State of Kindle Text-to-Speech
The Amazon Kindle was once again in headlines this week, and this time, it wasn’t in an especially flattering light. No, instead of any mentions of the latest developments at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the Kindle was guilty by association in a lawsuit filed by the National Federation of the Blind and American Council of the Blind against Arizona State University for discrimination rising from their use of the Kindle DX in the classroom.
Evidently, ASU had started a pilot program to see how useful the Kindle DX would be in a classroom setting. Ever since I first picked one up, that seemed to be the most practical application of e-Reader technology. I’m a few years out of college at this point, but I still get back aches whenever I think about the sheer quantity of paper I was carrying around on a daily basis. The NFB and ACB didn’t object to the convenience, however, so much as the fact that blind students wouldn’t get the same benefits out of the program because the Kindle’s text-to-speech system is inadequate for their needs.
Of course, while the principle motivation behind the text-to-speech feature is that it gives the disabled access to digital content, I’ve found that it’s actually a rather satisfying bonus feature when you figure out how to use it. I fired it up one time when I was on an airplane at night (this was, of course, before I got my m-Edge cover and accompanying e-Luminator2 book light), and I’ve also used it on occasions where reading and walking might get me killed – like walking to the store along a busy road.
I’ve never bought the argument that text-to-speech is a poor man’s replacement for the audiobook, because, frankly, the Kindle’s drab monotone is simply no substitute for an actor reading a part. More practically, the fact that just about every book I buy from the Amazon store has text-to-speech disabled by the publisher renders the feature functionally useless. It’s gotten to the point where I have to make sure I’m reading a public domain book on the side, just so I have something to turn to when a text-to-speech situation arrives.
If Amazon is categorically incapable of getting publishers to use the features of the device they sell and unwilling even to make the menus and Kindle Book Store handicap-accessible, than I think they should just drop the feature entirely. It’s one of the few novelties that they still have over the immediate competition, but it’s meaningless to have if your customers can never use it.
If you’re looking for a silver lining, the settlement agreement in the ASU case included a stipulation that acknowledged how Amazon is making progress in the accessibility of e-Readers for the visually impaired. Hopefully that represents not just empty conjecture, but a statement informed by Amazon itself. We’ll see.