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Chapter 10. Reading Technology

A conscientious publisher who follows the guidebooks, adopts the standards, and produces publications with accessibility features might be disappointed to learn that some of those very features (codified as they are in international open standards) are dead on arrival in a good number of reading technologies and devices. This is true not only of accessibility features but also of many advanced EPUB features that are not accessibility specific. For example, inline frames within a page will not render on some readers; alternate text for images is ignored on some reading applications; navigation from the table of contents is impossible with some combinations of assistive technology, reading applications, and devices. EPUB features from the most basic to the most innovative are not consistently “supported,” that is, they do not function as expected, or are ignored entirely, on many modern reading devices and technologies.

Still, conscientious publishers can take comfort knowing that their publications are ready while the reading technologies and devices are still catching up. Designing digital content for accessibility has always meant, in part, designing for the future. One of the four principles of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (W3C, 2008, 2018) is, “Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety” of technologies, current and future. In their short history, e-reader devices have strongly resisted accessible design, but the advent of tablets and smartphones has shifted accessible development to reading applications rather than dedicated devices. Accessible publications produced today will work as expected on some current reading technologies, though support is still uneven. These publications should, however, work on future reading technologies and have the potential to work on yet undeveloped technologies that may make greater use of the modularization of digital content (de Bruijn et al., 2015) and the translation of accessible content across sensory modalities.

Electronic Reader Devices

For all the promise of making reading accessible, the early development of e-readers was marked by competing, proprietary file formats that fragmented progress and limited technology that ignored principles of universal design. While the manufacturers of e-reader devices have not been held to legal accessibility requirements, the educational institutions that quickly adopted them have been, resulting in national attention to the inaccessibility of such devices.

Amazon Kindle, released in 2007, was the first successful e-reader (a second wave after first-generation options including Rocket eBook, developed in 1998, the Sony Librie [2004], and the Sony Reader [2006] [Hansen, 2016]). In 2009, Barnes & Noble released the Nook, which was an e-reader and more, with Wi-Fi connectivity and built-in app-like features including a dictionary and Web browsing. In 2010, Apple introduced the iPad, which rapidly changed the landscape. After that, most of the previous e-readers became tablets to some extent. The next-generation Kindle was the Kindle Fire, a combination of reader and tablet, and the Nook graduated, after a few versions in rapid succession, to the Nook Tablet in 2011.

In the early years of e-readers, several educational institutions participated in pilots to introduce and study their potential use in classrooms. It was in this educational context, subject to the ADA, that e-readers were publicly exposed for their lack of accessible design. In 2009, a lawsuit was brought by the National Federation of the Blind and the American Council of the Blind against Arizona State University, one of several U.S. universities participating in a pilot program with Kindle. The suit was settled in 2010 by an agreement in which four universities agreed “not to use the Amazon Kindle DX ebook reader or other ereaders until they are rendered accessible for blind students” (Blumenstein, 2010).

The year of this settlement was also the year in which the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) passed new regulations on communications technology in the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010. The manufacturers of e-readers petitioned the FCC for a waiver to ignore these accessibility regulations, and more than 500 groups including the American Library Association, Association of Research Libraries, and major disability organizations filed comments in opposition to this petition for waiver (Goldberg, 2013). In spite of broad opposition, the waiver was granted for one year in 2014, extended for one year in 2015, and extended indefinitely in 2016, with plans to review in 2019. E-reader device manufacturers continue without real legal accessibility requirements and without strong incentive to make accessible, universally designed products.

Meanwhile, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights and the Department of Justice have made clear that these devices shall not be used for content delivery in academic settings that guarantee equal opportunity for learning. In a joint “Dear Colleague Letter” (2010) on electronic book readers, they have written:

Requiring use of an emerging technology in a classroom environment when the technology is inaccessible to an entire population of individuals with disabilities—individuals with visual disabilities—is discrimination prohibited by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) unless those individuals are provided accommodations or modifications that permit them to receive all the educational benefits provided by the technology in an equally effective and equally integrated manner.

This strongly worded letter discourages higher education institutions from using technologies that fail to comply with accessibility requirements, asking college and university presidents to “take steps to ensure that your college or university refrains from requiring the use of any electronic book reader, or other similar technology, in a teaching or classroom environment as long as the device remains inaccessible to individuals who are blind or have low vision” (U.S. Department of Justice & U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, 2010, p. 2). The letter furthermore discourages the use of technological innovations that fail to innovate in the direction of accessibility and emphasizes the potential for the nexus between education and technology to drive new accessible tech: “It is unacceptable for universities to use emerging technology without insisting that this technology be accessible to all students” (U.S. Department of Justice & U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, 2010, p. 2).

Reading Apps

In today’s technology landscape, any tablet, smartphone, or mobile device can act as an electronic reading device. Reading applications or apps, rather than dedicated devices, have become the locus of development, innovation, and improved accessibility. Devices running on either of today’s major mobile operating systems—Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android—already incorporate built-in assistive technology features including text-to-speech, voice input, and options for alternate display. Reading application developers can promote accessibility by ensuring that their apps are compatible with the built-in accessibility features of these operating systems as well as capable of supporting accessible content features.

Yet the many applications capable of reading EPUB are not equally capable of supporting the accessibility features of EPUB. The EPUB Test Project monitors this variability by collecting data from a crowd-sourced testing protocol. The EPUB Test Suite consists of a set of EPUB files that exemplify various EPUB features (some accessibility-related) and instructions for volunteers to download the sample files, open them on a reading platform and device, and then record which features are successfully supported. The resulting spreadsheets show the still stratified landscape of support for standards across combinations of devices, operating systems, applications, and assistive technologies. The results also give readers who rely on assistive technology and accessibility features the information they need to choose reading technologies that will work best. This information may also be useful for publishers who wish to identify and recommend reading systems that support the EPUB features they are making use of and for technology developers who wish to see how their product measures up against the field. Built-in support for EPUB features that are crucial to some readers can be a competitive edge in this still crowded market.

Users with disabilities may have other considerations in choosing reading technology beyond the support for EPUB standards. For example, the cost and compatibility of a technology, the availability of texts on a platform, or the size and weight of a particular device may be make-or-break considerations for a particular user. Research by Allison Kidd (2014) at the University of Colorado provides comparison across these variables. For some users, the simplified features of a dedicated e-reader may be preferable to a tablet—for example, users with light sensitivity may prefer the paper-style screen of an e-reader to the backlit screen of a tablet. In general, the simple interface, lightweight profile, and backlight-free screen of electronic reading devices are important design features for some, including some with disabilities. But the lack of universal design principles means that these features often come along with no tactile controls or audio capabilities and no alternative input compatibility. In short, the devices come with no capability for alternative forms of input or output beyond the smooth interface of the unlit screen, which a broad variety of readers with disabilities cannot effectively see, touch, or operate. Reading applications, which may be coupled with a variety of input and output technologies, hold much more promise for a broader range of readers.

While reading devices and applications continue to catch up to supporting established standards for accessible publications, standards are still crucial for content creators who want to produce accessible publications with the greatest potential to be usable for all. Web standards have been around for years and, although not all mainstream Web browsers support all elements of the standards, standards are still crucial to ensuring relatively functional and equitable user experience of Websites across Web browsers, operating systems, and devices from desktops to tablets. With the merger of International Digital Publishing Forum and World Wide Web Consortium, the EPUB standards are now managed by the same group that has lobbied for, established, and improved modern Web standards over the past two decades. The current EPUB standards are the best bet for the future in terms of accessible content and in terms of designing reading technologies.