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Textbooks Will Speak on New Kindle DX

May 6 2009 | by

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Amazon’s new Kindle DX, designed for reading textbooks and newspapers, will include text-to-speech to allow students with print disabilities to read textbooks out loud.

Amazon’s Director of Kindle Books, Laura Porco, said the company is working with three of the top five textbook publishers — Pearson, Cengage Learning and Wiley, along with more than 75 University Press Publishers to make their educational materials available in the Kindle Store starting this summer. With content accessible in an audio version to everyone — not just to those who can “prove” they have a print disability — Amazon and publishers have taken a big step in breaking down barriers to educational content for people with disabilities.

The Kindle DX has a 9.7-inch electronic display, a built-in PDF reader and the ability to automatically switch from portrait to landscape. It can store up to 3,500 books, and also lets readers annotate and take notes. The e-book reader works with real ink to display complex charts, images, tables, graphs, and equations. In a demonstration showing a pilots’ air-traffic map, a biology textbook and a cookbook, all images looked crisp and graphic-rich.

But the National Federation of the Blind doesn’t think the Kindle DX goes far enough: The e-book reader’s menus and controls aren’t audio-accessible to the blind and visually impaired. The NFB says deploying this device in college and universities would violate state and federal laws requiring equal access to textbooks and course materials for students with disabilities.

“We are appalled that Amazon is releasing a new Kindle device ostensibly for the use of students that does not contain features that make it accessible to the blind, said Dr. Marc Maurer, president of the NFB. “Amazon [should] introduce a user interface for the Kindle that is accessible to the blind as soon as possible. Until [then], no college or university should deploy this device,” he added.

A medical textbook on the Kindle DX

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos shows a medical textbook on the Kindle DX

But Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos didn’t fly to New York to talk about accessibility. He was on stage Wednesday morning at Pace University to show off the thinner-than-a-magazine gadget that would be on shelves in time for the holiday rush. Indeed, the Kindle has the potential to be a nice profit-maker for Amazon. Kindle sales are currently 35 percent of total sales, among titles with both print and digital editions. The Kindle Store now has 275,000 titles available for download. With storage for 3,500 books, even at $10 a book that’s $35,000 per reader.

Amazon says it will pilot a textbook program with Case Western Reserve, Princeton University, Princeton University, the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia and Reed College. The schools will distribute hundreds of Kindle DX devices to students spread across a range of disciplines. Barbara Snyder, president of Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, says “we’ll have thousands of textbook pages available on a singe device.” It will also help our “students to walk taller” because they won’t be carrying heavy backpacks,” she added.

However, the commercial market — for non-students — isn’t as flexible on text-to-speech. Many publishers still haven’t given Amazon the rights to include audio versions of Amazon’s titles. That’s a shame, since the e-book reader has the potential to be an incredibly useful device for people with print disabilities.

On a positive note, The New York Times Co. has partnered with Amazon to offer content on the Kindle DX; at least three newspapers will have text-to-speech functionality: New York Times, Boston Globe and Washington Post. The Kindle DX will also be offered at a reduced price to readers who live in areas where home-delivery is not available.

The Kindle DX’s cost: $489, vs. $359 for the Kindle 2. It will be available starting this summer.

  • Bob Martinengo

    Hi there,

    Was there an actual commitment from Amazon that the pilot textbooks would have text-to-speech enabled? Unless you have that in writing, I would have to doubt it is the case.

    My guess, until proven otherwise, is that the textbooks will be displayed as PDF, which will be easier for the publishers to provide than conversion to the Kindle’s format. So it may be a technical limitation that disables speech output.

    Or, perhaps the files could be output as speech, but the publishers will discreetly leave that turned off, so as not to rock the boat at this time. But is is possible they will be speech-enabled – it will be interesting to see how that plays out.

    What’s missing here is any notable statement from the colleges that are accepting Kindles for testing that accessibility was in any way a requirement, or even a concern. I honestly don’t know if they did or didn’t ask for accessibility features to be included, but I doubt it.

    If the colleges, who serve students with disabilities, wont insist on accessibility, how much emphasis do we think technology vendors will give it?

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