Maybe you have seen them on or on the web page of your local public library—a book in Adobe Reader format or a collection in a Palm e-book format. Maybe you have wondered whether you can access them with your screen reader.

Having explored the world of commercial e-books, I am happy to report that the majority of these books are, indeed, accessible using screen readers, although not without some knowledge and planning. In this article, I provide some background that I hope will clarify the current status and future potential of commercial e-books and information that should help you to use them as effectively as possible, including some strategies for dealing with features that are not fully accessible.

E-books, in general, are books that are available in electronic text. The books that AccessWorld readers may be downloading from Bookshare or Web-Braille are examples of e-books that are designed to be accessible. There are also a large number of books that are out of copyright, downloadable free of charge from the Internet, and available in plain text or other accessible formats. With any of these books, we know from the start if we can "read" them and read them with the ability to navigate freely, search for text, and transfer the books to other devices.

Commercial e-books, on the other hand, are found online in bookstores and in commercial and public libraries. Some must be read on stand-alone readers that are not speech or braille accessible. Most, however, can be read on personal computers using screen readers and on accessible Pocket PC devices. The PAC Mate family of products, from Freedom Scientific, are Pocket PC devices, and Pocket Hal, from Dolphin Computer Access, is a new screen reader for the Pocket PC.

The Bad News

Few e-books, however, offer users of screen readers the same quality of content that is available to visual readers. What may be missing is a useful table of contents; print page-number equivalents for referencing sources in research papers; or tools for navigating charts, graphs, or information about pictures. When commercial e-books can be accessed, sometimes hypertext and other markups or the tools for adding notes or bookmarks cannot.

Several organizations have been working to design standards and tools that will allow people who are blind or have low vision to access the full content of books in the future. The DAISY Consortium is designing a standard for accessible books in digital audio or electronic text or both. Books that implement some of the potential in the DAISY standards are now available from Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic. Beyond the Text, a project of the WGBH National Center for Accessible Media, is studying ways to make multimedia (images, audio, and video) in e-books accessible to people with sensory disabilities. Advocates of accessibility are active participants in the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF), the trade-and-standards association for the digital publishing industry. Much work has been done to ensure that publishing standards that are developed by the IDPF include support for full accessibility. It is too soon, however, to see the fruits of this work in the e-book market, and some methods for protecting digital texts from being copied may make books totally inaccessible in just the formats with the best potential access to full content. For more on this problem, see "The Soundproof Book: Exploration of Rights Conflict and Access to Commercial e-Books for People with Disabilities," by George Kerscher and Jim Fruchterman <>.

Therefore, my focus here is on how to read books that can be purchased in 2006 even with these limitations. I hope that this information will become out of date as other, more fully accessible, formats become available.

The Glass Is Half Full

The reason to deal with half a loaf is sheer numbers. It has been estimated that less than 10% of the roughly 70,000 books that are published each year are produced in accessible formats. However, it has been estimated that 65% of new books are already available commercially in electronic formats (Wired News: "Screening the Latest Bestseller" <,70039-0.html?tw=wn_tophead_1>). There is no indication that the percentage of books that are produced in this format will do anything but continue to increase.

Two primary access issues affect our ability to read today's e-books. One is the inaccessibility of some books because of the protections that are used to prevent copying and the difficulty in getting information about what books are inaccessible in this manner. The other is the inaccessibility of some of the software that is needed to read the books. Other issues that I address are limitations on transferring books between devices and the difficulties presented by registration processes that are needed to read secure e-books.

Accessibility of Software

I examined seven e-book readers that support the primary e-book formats that are in distribution: Adobe Reader, eReader Pro, iSilo, Microsoft Reader, Mobipocket, Qvadis Express Reader Lite, and the µBook Reader. I did so using a computer running Windows XP with two screen readers—JAWS for Windows 7.0 and Window-Eyes 5.5—and with a 20-cell PAC Mate braille display to see if there were differences between braille and speech access. New features in these screen reader versions offer the best access to Adobe e-books. I also ran these products on a PAC Mate (BX20), which should be indicative of Pocket PC access in general.

To use any of this software, you need good knowledge of how to use your screen reader and how to download and install software on your computer. Knowledge of how to control the mouse pointer (or JAWS cursor) from the keyboard is essential as well.

The Software

After excluding e-book readers that do not provide significant access, I found three that, in combination, offer the most access to the largest number of books from the largest number of sources: Adobe Reader, eReader or eReader Pro, and Mobipocket. For example, books in Microsoft Reader format are usually not accessible, and there is no way to know if they are accessible ahead of time. However, most books in this format are also available in at least one format that can be read using the products discussed next. For the best results, download and learn to use all three of these products.

Adobe Reader

The Adobe Reader is used to read books in PDF (portable document format). Download the accessible version of the Adobe Reader free from <>. This accessible version is different from the one that is installed on most computers. If you have an earlier version, you should upgrade to 7.0. After installation, you need to "activate" the software to read secure e-books. Supposedly, there is an "Easy Activation" process in version 7.0, so that the reader is automatically activated when a secure Adobe e-book is opened. I was unable to trigger this process. The older "Name Activation" process includes obtaining a Passport, which requires visual verification (copying a word displayed in graphic form into a box on the screen). Alternatively, you can play a recording in which the word is spelled that purposely contains a lot of background noise. It took me many attempts to copy the word correctly, and no alternative is offered to deaf-blind users unless they can get Easy Activation to work. A user is permitted to activate Adobe Reader on up to six computers, and the Easy Activation process places some limits on transferring books between computers that the Name Activation process does not.

All features can be controlled by keystrokes, and the help system is also accessible. Many of the tools that Adobe offers to publishers that would enhance access are not utilized in many books, but the freedom to move freely through a document is equivalent to what users of screen readers have come to expect in navigating HTML files on the Internet.

The biggest problem with this format is the difficulty in determining whether a book is locked for security purposes in such a way as to make it completely inaccessible by a screen reader. Of the three Adobe e-books that I downloaded from my public library, one was completely inaccessible, and there was no way to know that it was ahead of time. The one place that I was able to find this information was at, which lists the read-aloud status of the books that it sells. If Read Aloud is disabled, a book will also be inaccessible to a screen reader. If you are trying to obtain an Adobe e-book from another source, try looking it up first on to check the read-aloud status. Secure Adobe e-books cannot be read on a PAC Mate or Pocket PC.

eReader and eReader Pro

Download this program, also called Palm eReader, from <>. eReader is free, and the Pro version, which is needed to use reference books, costs $9. A separate version is needed for a Pocket PC. eReader supports books in older Peanut Reader, Palm Reader, and Secure Palm formats and is sometimes called the Palm eReader.

After you purchase the software, the programs are placed in your "bookshelf" and are available for download. A link next to each version that you own leads to a page with the information that is needed to unlock the product. Check how your name is presented (such as the inclusion of your middle initial and capitalization), because you will need to copy it exactly the first time that you use the software.

Books are opened using a standard Control-O command. The first time that you open a book, you are prompted to give your name and password, which is your credit card number.

There is a standard accessible menu bar, and there are keystroke commands for searching, going to a particular page, bookmarking, and selecting from a table of contents. The option to add notes to a book is not accessible. There is a document on how to use this software that comes with it, but the documentation on the web site is more accessible. The difficulty with this software, also true for the Mobipocket Reader, is that it does not have a movement cursor. You cannot use a Say All or Read to End command and sit back and listen.

There are two basic reading options that do not require configuration or script writing. One is to change a setting to have all text echoed when the screen changes. In JAWS, toggle the screen echo to All, and in Window-Eyes, toggle to Speak All On. Pressing Page Down or Page Up will move from page to page or back again, and that page will be read. The advantage of this method is that you have to press only one key to read each page.

Alternatively, use your mouse pointer; restrict it to the current or focused window; take it to the top; read down by line, sentence, or another option; and press Page Down when you finish a page. In JAWS, this alternative adds two steps—finish a page, activate the PC cursor, press Page Down, route JAWS to PC, and start again. Using a braille display, this latter method is the only viable one. Running Window-Eyes with the DECtalk Access synthesizer, the speech was extremely choppy; this problem was resolved by switching to the Eloquence synthesizer.

Reading Reference Books

When you open a dictionary or another reference work using eReader, your focus is in an edit box, and there is one unlabeled button that you can tab to. As you start to type in the edit box, the visible page moves to narrow in on the term that you are looking for. When you have typed the whole word, you will hear the word echoed. This works consistently better out of the box in JAWS than in Window-Eyes. Setting Speak All to On in Window-Eyes helps. Press Enter, and the definition is displayed at the top of the application window. Use the mouse pointer or another review cursor to read it. After you have found one word, the edit box is followed by two buttons that can be tabbed to—Search Forward and Search Backward—but they are not needed. Just start typing the next term that you want to look up. In the sample of the Oxford Spanish-English Dictionary that I examined, it was possible to type unaccented letters to look up Spanish words.

The Pocket PC version of this program was the most accessible that I found for the PAC Mate. You read using the same options that were described for the PC version. There is no access to the menus via the menu key. Three icons—Book, Go, and Options—at the bottom of the window can be activated with the JAWS cursor. To open a book, click on the Book icon, choose Open from the menu, then click on the book that you want using the JAWS cursor, and click the Open button at the bottom of the screen. Reference books also work as on a PC but without the two buttons.

Mobipocket Reader

Download this free program from <>. Using secure Mobipocket books necessitates registering a Personal Identifier (PID) with the provider. A PID is a unique string of numbers and letters that identifies a copy of your Mobipocket program and is generated with each installation of the program. Here is how you find the PID:

  1. Open the View menu with Alt-V. You will be on the Left Pane option. If it is checked, press Alt to leave the menus. If it is not, press Enter.
  2. Use your mouse pointer or JAWS cursor. Start at the top of the screen and arrow down to My Device List and click on it.
  3. Arrow down from My Device List using the mouse pointer to Edit Properties and click on it. You will then be in an accessible dialog box, and pressing Tab once using your standard cursor lands you on your PID.

Different book providers allow a different number of PIDs to be registered. My public library allows three, and allows two, which can be changed only every six months.

This program is similar to the eReader but slightly less accessible. However, more secure e-books seem to be available in this format, and the menu bar and menus are accessible. There are no keyboard shortcuts. Choosing Keyboard Shortcuts from the Help menu nets a page that reads "coming soon." The bookmark feature is not accessible. There was no good user documentation.

Navigation and reading work the same way as with the eReader. One difference is that reference books sometimes require tabbing to or clicking on a Start New Search button after you find one definition, and the definitions are displayed below, instead of above, the search box.

To install the software on the PAC Mate, make an ActiveSync connection and select Install New Device from the Tools menu in the PC version. Retrieving the PID for the new device is more complicated. Repeating the steps listed earlier in the PC version, you should find two occurrences of Edit Properties, and once you are in the dialog box, you will be able to tell from the label which device it is for. Sometimes, however, there are not two occurrences. At that point, turn Unlabeled Graphics on and poke around for a second graphic near the Edit Properties button. The PID issue can be troublesome. At some point in my use of the product, it recognized my PAC Mate as a different new device, generated a new PID, and prevented me from using new books on the PAC Mate from sources where the previous PID was registered.

Selecting a Format

When a book is available in more than one accessible format, I have come up with a formula that other users may need to modify to fit their needs. If I want to read a book only on my PC, I choose the Adobe format for its flexibility of navigation, but only if I can establish that speech access is not locked. When I download books from a free library, even though there is a limit to how many books can be checked out at once, I try the Adobe format because the Adobe Reader has an option to return books early, and thus there is no penalty if the book cannot be accessed. Next, I use the Palm format, since the eReader is somewhat more accessible than the Mobipocket Reader. I also choose it if I want to be able to read the books on my PAC Mate. I choose the Mobipocket format for reading on a PC when I cannot confirm the accessibility of an Adobe e-book and for reading on my PAC Mate when there is no e-book version.

The Bottom Line

When I began to explore the accessibility of commercially available e-books, I did not have any particular expectations, and it took me some time to work out the logistics of reading these books. The results have been more rewarding than I could have imagined. I am paying for books for the first time in my adult life, but what I am paying for is the ability to read the full texts of new books by my favorite authors, to visit online bookstores where all the books are books I can read, and to explore a wider range of current literature than I have ever had before. I hope I have succeeded in making the process easier and that more AccessWorld readers will join me in the stacks.

Some Sources for Purchasing Commercial e-Books

e-Book Mall


This site offers e-books in many formats, but it is a book club that you must join to take advantage of the special offers.


A good source for books in the Palm eReader format, especially reference books.



This is my favorite e-bookstore. The site offers an extensive collection of both free and commercial e-titles in many formats, and includes nonfiction despite its name.

Memoware PDA Bookstore


Over 18,000 books, fiction and nonfiction, in multiple formats. Start with the Memoware home page <> to find more book information, including free books available for download.



For Mobipocket books and software.

PerfectBound (HarperCollins)


Fiction and nonfiction select titles from this publisher are available in Adobe and Palm Reader formats.

Powell's (


Books in the Palm eReader format.

Rosetta Books


E-books in multiple formats are offered for sale at this digital book publisher.

Noncommercial Sources of e-Books



Includes over 26,000 books, mostly scanned. Most books are available to U.S. residents only. Unlimited downloads are available for an annual fee.

Center for Accessible Publishing


An advocacy organization of students whose goal is to make it easier to obtain textbooks in accessible formats. Contains links to forms for applying to receive texts from publishers that have them, guidelines to help when they do not, a forum to share information, and dreams of doing even more.

National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped


Books produced in braille since 1992 can be downloaded in Web-Braille formats free by NLS patrons. All that is needed is to contact your local Library for the Blind and obtain a user ID and password. Books can be located from online copies of the Braille Book Review at

<> or by searching the NLS catalog.

The Online Books Page


A comprehensive listing of over 25,000 free books on the web.

Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic


Produces a collection that contains over 23,000 AudioPlus books—navigable digital audio books. It is in the process of developing books in the AudioPlus Text format that will include the full audio and full electronic text for a single book. These books require special stand-alone machines or software to read them.

Other Useful Resources

CPB/WGBH National Center for Accessible Media


Has a Beyond the Text Project that is studying how to make multimedia e-book content accessible.

DAISY Consortium


Developers of the DAISY specification for Digital Talking Books.

Dolphin Computer Access


Produces Pocket Hal—a screen reader for Pocket PC devices.

International Digital Publishing Forum


The trade-and-standards association for the digital publishing industry.


Offers lots of information on all aspects of the e-book world.

Lynn Zelvin
Article Topic
Access Issues