Access to Education and Reading Books
Amazon Brings Voice Accessibility to the Kindle Paperwhite with a New Audio Adapter
After the Kindle iOS and Android apps were made accessible, the blind and visually impaired community was finally able to purchase and enjoy Amazon's unmatched library of e-books using either VoiceOver or TalkBack. Amazon went on to develop the VoiceView screen reader for its line of Fire tablets, which also now offer access to Kindle titles. This left only one inaccessible Kindle reading device--the original Kindle e-book reader.
Recently, Amazon introduced the Kindle Audio Adapter, a USB dongle that enables Paperwhite Generation 7 users to read Kindle books with a ground-up rebuild of the VoiceView touch screen reader. Amazon, like Apple and Google, is pushing hard to have its devices used in the classroom, and the inaccessibility of the original Kindle devices was a definite drawback, if not a deal breaker, for many districts. Also, according to Amazon Accessibility Architect, Peter Korn, "We were still getting a lot of requests for an accessible Kindle. Some visually impaired individuals don't want to use a multipurpose smartphone or tablet to read a book. They want a single device that will read a book and nothing else." This sentiment also explains the ongoing popularity of the Digital Audio Book Players provided by the National Library Service. Those who are currently using one of the several voice-enabled feature phones may also be interested in the Kindle Audio Adapter. Additionally, there is already an extremely large Kindle user base, and, observes Korn, "As this population ages and vision dims many will wish to use the Audio Adapter so they can continue reading with the same device they have always used."
Recently, I put a Kindle Paperwhite with an Audio Adapter through its paces. Here's what I found.
Device and Adapter Descriptions
The Kindle Paperwhite Wi-Fi is 6.7″ by 4.6″ by 0.36.″ It weighs 7.2 ounces, less than many paperbacks. The Paperwhite has a single button-the power button-and one port--the micro-USB charging port, along the bottom edge of the device. There is a fairly wide bezel surrounding the device's six-inch, touch-enabled eInk screen.
The Kindle Audio adapter is a 0.6-ounce dongle with an audio jack at one end and a short, micro USB cable at the other. There is no pass-through, so you can't use your Kindle with speech while it is plugged into the charger. According to Korn, "This is a limitation of the USB standards. Power can move through a USB cable in either direction, but only in a single direction at one time, so the device cannot charge and voice simultaneously."
Happily, Kindle eReaders usually come pre-charged, so I didn't have to wait to try the Audio Adapter. I did have to grab a pair of earbuds, however, since, like the Paperwhite itself, the Kindle Audio Adapter does not have a speaker and earbuds are not included. Nor does the Paperwhite come with a USB wall adapter, only a cable, which you can use to charge the device from a computer USB port or a separately purchased wall adapter.
The Audio Adapter currently works only on 7th Generation Paperwhites, though there are plans to extend the VoiceView to other Kindle models. The dongle draws its power from the Paperwhite, so you do not need to recharge or replace additional batteries. The Kindle eReader is known for its battery life (the device can operate for weeks without recharging). Understandably, using speech lowers this performance dramatically. The Audio Adapter is rated for approximately six hours of continuous playback, which matched my experience.
After connecting the Audio Adapter's USB cable and a pair of earbuds to the Kindle, pressing the Paperwhite's power button, and waiting a few seconds, I was greeted with a welcome message and instructed to double tap the screen to load the VoiceView software. The voice was the same IVONA text-to-speech female voice used by default on the Fire tablet version of VoiceView. It is extremely high quality and easy to understand. Unfortunately, neither the Paperwhite nor the Audio Adapter offers hardware volume control (the volume level is software controlled). I found the voice volume sufficiently loud that I did not change it subsequently, but a blind user with moderate to severe hearing loss may have setup issues without a separately amplified external speaker. The Audio Adapter does not have Bluetooth capability; it only works with devices that include an audio-out cable.
Installing VoiceView Files
You can also purchase the Adapter for use with your own Paperwhite Generation 7. Consult this Amazon help page to determine if your device is a Generation 7. You will need to perform an extra step, however, to install VoiceView. Because VoiceView works with existing Kindle Paperwhite eReaders, most come from the factory without the large voice files already installed (not the case with those bundled with the Kindle Audio Adapter). To get the files, you must download them onto a computer and then pair your Kindle with the computer to copy the files. Complete instructions can be found on the Kindle Audio Adapter help page.
The VoiceView tutorial that begins after the software is installed offers instruction on activating controls using double tap, and navigation via either swipe gestures or using touch exploration. A brief typing tutorial is also included. The VoiceView keyboard uses touch-typing: navigate to the character you wish to enter and then raise the finger to confirm. If you hold down on a letter, you will not hear a phonetic, alpha, beta, charlie repeat of the letter, and when you do raise your finger the VoiceView screen reader beeps, then announces, for example, "V Entered." It's useful knowing you have entered the correct character, but the more you type, the more verbose this extra verbiage becomes. Also, the eInk screen glass is not as smooth as either a standard Apple or Android phone or tablet. As with those devices' touch screen readers, using VoiceView for Kindle requires a lot of sliding one's finger around the screen. Some may find the Kindle screen texture refreshing and easier to use. I found it a bit jerky, especially when sliding in small increments, such as when trying to move one keyboard character to the left or right before lifting my finger.
After completing the VoiceView tutorial and selecting a language, the Kindle will complete its configuration. Next, you need to select a Wi-Fi network and enter a password, whose characters echo or not as you choose.
Lastly, you need to enter your Amazon account login and password. Once you've finished with this step, your Kindle cloud library will be available to download to your device.
Using the Kindle with the Audio Adapter
The Kindle home screen includes a Quick Settings button, where you can access VoiceView options. Currently these options are limited to replaying the tutorial and setting voice speed and volume. Alternative voices are not available.
The Kindle Store is completely accessible. Take note, however: you will not be presented with a purchase confirmation screen--once you double tap "Buy this Book," it is yours.
If you have a preexisting Kindle library you can access it via the Home screen's My Library control. Here you will find a complete list of your books, whether they are downloaded on your device or available in the Cloud, and the percentage of progress you've made in the book. Double tap any book in the Cloud to download it to your device. Double tap any downloaded title to begin playback.
You can pause playback at any time by touching the screen with one finger. Perform a two-finger swipe down to resume play. This last command required some genuine creativity on the part of the developers, since the Kindle's touch recognition system only recognizes a single touch-point. At first I could not get this gesture to work. I am left-handed, and when finally I tried the gesture with my right hand it worked fine. I suspect my issue has something to do with the direction a leftie like myself swipes down compared to a righty.
Another missing feature in the first release of VoiceView for Kindle is that there gestures to review text by paragraph, sentence, or character do not exist. Swiping left or right while inside a book moves a single word at a time. Here, I do think that after a pause VoiceView should spell the word or number character by character for clarity, then, after another pause, repeat the characters phonetically. I would also suggest they use up and down swipes to control granularity for character, word, sentence, paragraph, and page.
If you double tap and hold on a word you will be offered its dictionary definition. The "Highlight" option reports unavailable. Double-tap anywhere on the screen to exit the book, to create a bookmark, or to access the "Go to" controls, which are currently limited to the beginning of each chapter. You are not able to scroll page by page through a book using VoiceView.
Currently, the Good Reads, Kindle Free Time, Vocabulary Builder, and the Experimental Browser buttons all report as unavailable. You also can't access the X-Ray or Share options while reading a book.
"We debated long and hard as to whether to hold the product until it provided access to all of the Kindle eReader's capabilities or release it in its current version and then update it as we are able to add new features and capabilities," says Korn. "We decided to go with the option that would allow users to access their Kindle books as soon as possible and then add features going forward."
As is the case with other Kindle software, updates will happen automatically in the background, assuming the device stays connected to a Wi-Fi network.
I found the VoiceView screen reader extremely responsive, and the voice quality was excellent. There is still much work to be done, but I think Amazon has made an excellent start, especially considering the Kindle eReader itself is a fairly low-end processor and memory device.
Already, Amazon's ground-up rebuild of their VoiceView screen reader is paying dividends, as the company recently announced that their Fire TV devices are now also VoiceView enabled. Stay tuned for a full review. I also look forward to seeing, or should I say hearing, many new features and capabilities on future versions of VoiceView running on their Fire tablets--especially the extremely affordable $49 model.
Kindle Paperwhite Blind and Visually Impaired Readers Bundle is available for $139.98. It includes a Kindle Paperwhite Generation 7 with Wi-Fi, a Kindle Audio Adapter, and a $19.99 Amazon Account Credit.
The Kindle Audio Adapter can also be purchased alone for $19.99.
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