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A Textbook-Friendly Kindle for Students with Disabilities?

May 5 2009 | by


Amazon plans to announce a new Kindle with a larger screen that will be ideal for reading college textbooks. It will reportedly have a 9.7 inch screen, but will text-to-speech be enabled for students with print disabilities, such as low vision or dyslexia?

My guess is yes. In the educational arena, students with print disabilities are allowed to download audio and Braille textbooks for free under a copyright exemption law. But it involves signing up with a national registry and sometimes waiting weeks or months for the book to be made available. A textbook-friendly Kindle that has speech capabilities would eliminate this issue and make it easier for students to access the necessary books.

But publishers would need to agree, and they haven’t been very friendly to the disabled in the last few months. Publishers recently asked Amazon to disable the text-to-speech function on its Kindle 2, saying an audio book is a separate copyright and must be sold separately from its digital, or e-book, version. Essentially, publishers want to make money off both versions. But people with print disabilities — such as the blind — who prefer the addition of an audio format are being left out. Last month, a coalition of disability advocates held a protest at the Authors’ Guild in New York to voice their anger over publishers’ decisions.

The only way colleges and universities would purchase or endorse this new Kindle is if its accessible to all students, including those with disabilities. To make this deal work, Amazon could get permission from publishers to allow free-for-all text-to-speech on the Kindle, and could likely work out a revenue-sharing deal.

It’s a win-win for everyone. A textbook-friendly Kindle would help Amazon secure footing in the lucrative educational market, similar to how the Apple II became the de facto computer in schools in the 80s and 90s. A digital market for textbooks would help publishers undercut the used-book market and give the publishing industry a needed boost. And students would benefit from less expensive, more easily searchable digital books.

The Wall Street Journal says a pilot program will take place at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland this fall, where select students will be issued a Kindle pre-loaded with text books. Their experience will be compared with that of students using traditional text books.

Audio textbooks, for all, on the Kindle, would be a baby step to opening up the commercial market to readers with print disabilities. The Kindle and other e-book readers have the potential to be incredibly useful devices for the disabled. And with the advent of the digital age, it’s time for publishers to make their books available in a variety of formats, including audio.


  • Josh

    The challenge with the Kindle for those with print disabilities such as speech and language disabilities, it solves only half of the equation. Though they are able to have their text books read to them by the Kindle, it doesn’t allow them to annotate the notes or provide any assistance in providing the output that post secondary education would require.
    I suppose it could be said that text to speech engines such as Kurzweil or Read and Write Gold are one sided, but they work in conjunction with software like Dragon and other speech like that which is build into Vista. There is no pathway between the Kindle and Dragon to allow a student to proof read their paper. Though the costs may be higher, it would provide a more seamless move between technologies.

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