Why ebook accessibility matters

Wednesday, March 4, 2009 17:34
Posted in category Ponderings

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Ac*cess`i*bil”i*ty\, n. [L. accessibilitas: cf. F. accessibilit['e].]
1. the quality of being at hand when needed [syn: handiness] [ant: inaccessibility]
2. the attribute of being easy to meet or deal with [syn: approachability] [ant: unapproachability]

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There have been a lot of comments about the Author’s Guild, text to speech software, and eBook technology. Lately, the blind have been thrown in the mix, often with little actual knowledge of what our perspective is. So I want to set the record straight and explain exactly why I’m so upset about the Author’s Guild’s stance re: text to speech.

I believe that as a consumer it is absolutely my right to read any book a sighted person can read. Period. I don’t want some well-meaning committee deciding that book A is something they’ll provide, but not book B or C. If a book is available in ebook, I should be able to read it.

imageThe problem, of course, is that I can’t. Of the major platforms for ebook reading, the most accessible out of the box with any screenreader is ereader. If, of course, by accessible you mean has a clunky interface that prevents me from actually getting into the flow of a book. Reading a book via ereader is, in my experience, about as fun as chewing rocks.

In order to have as much versatility as I want, therefore, I have to strip the DRM from a secure ereader file. Then I can load it onto my VictorReader Stream, which is the blind man’s ebook reading device. (Oh, yeah, it, too, has text to speech.) Given that stripping DRM is actually illegal to do in the United States, it’s not like you can Google “stripping DRM from an ebook” and get a page that will explain, in layman’s terms and in very small words, how to do it. Prior to recently, if I wanted to read a DRM-ed ebook, I had to have someone else strip it for me. I didn’t have a problem with this, except for the small, minor detail that it made me feel skeevy and dishonest. So recently, I decided I would teach myself how to strip DRM from ebooks.

frisbee-fail_small.jpgThe first format I tried was Microsoft Reader. I used “Convert *.lit”, which has a DRM conversion utility with its graphical user interface. Turns out that since Microsoft Reader is such an inaccessible program with a screenreader that even the blind computer programmer I know who, y’know, *works* for Microsoft couldn’t get it to work, that experiment failed in a major, epic way.

The next thing I did was email an acquaintance who is tech savvy and a huge proponent of ebooks because I figured she could give me advice. I should maybe have done that months ago. She gave me helpful suggestions, which largely involve mucking about with arcane geeky tools involving the command line, which is not something most people play with. And before I was successful in stripping the DRM from my book, I had to have yet another friend call me so we could troubleshoot the program I was using. So, in order to read this ebook I’ve bought, I had to have three different people help me. Sighted people? Just point and click with the mouse and the book is right there, ready to be read.

The fact is, though, that I don’t mind embracing my inner geek, and I have geek friends. The average blind consumer isn’t so lucky. The average blind consumer, who by rights should be the best customer the ebook industry could hope to find, is not likely to find any of the ereading options currently available to us very accessible.

scream-1.jpgThis is why the Kindle issue upsets me. Because I want the ability to just decide, “Hmmm, I want a Nora Roberts book” and then get one and be able to read it when and wherever, on a portable device, without having to do a song and dance routine. Whether it’s true or not, I feel like the stance of the AG is going to prevent that right. Oh, sure, I can still read books via sites like Bookshare, but why should that be my option? Why should I have to settle for less than the ease of use and accessibility of something like the Kindle? Why should I be further prevented, for that matter, from spending my money? If I want to buy a book on the Kindle and have the TTS software read it, that’s a royalty the author wouldn’t get if I just used the Library of Congress’s audio program.

And yet, I’ve felt for months now that my money isn’t good enough for New York publishers because they’re not making any attempt to let me read the books I want to.

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