The Amazon Kindle and many other e-readers continue to enjoy unbridled success in the retail sphere, but have not caught on in educational institutions. The main reason is not the cost of the hardware or being locked into a particular ecosystem, but the device being capable of addressing disabled people’s needs. Amazon has made great strides in the last few years to make its e-readers accessible to the blind and dyslexic. Other companies have invested zero effort into their devices being more user friendly with ALL students.
Most e-readers have the ability to change the size of the fonts, line-spacing, and other facets to tailor the reading experience to your personal habits. This has allowed people who are near-sighted or have reduced vision to continue to enjoy the reading experience. Often e-readers are a better long term investment instead of buying the “large print” edition of a particular book.
The big reason why many school boards in the USA and across the world have not adopted e-readers in the classroom is because whenever they try, advocacy groups representing disabled people shut them down. If a device cannot be used by all students or a strong majority of the population, they are considered not a viable investment of the school’s money and alienates specific students. The Amazon Kindle is currently the only reader that has the functionality to appeal to the vision impaired. They have a unique text to speech function that not only applies to ebooks but also the menus, settings, and everything else. To be fair, not all ebooks have the Read Aloud feature, but a strong majority of them do. Also, when you purchase a Kindle for the first time, it is difficult for people to set the reader up out of the box. The user guide that instructs you how to setup the Text to Speech feature is only in a PDF file that comes on a piece of paper in the box. In the classroom, these devices are normally pre-configured. Other models of the newer Kindles don’t even have audio functionality.
Amazon is the only company that has bothered to appeal to people who have various disabilities that limit their sight or ability to read. Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Ectaco, and all others have not developed technology in their readers to appeal to everybody. This is the MAIN factor why e-readers are not widely adopted in schools and if these companies have any aspirations to enter the educational sphere, it is completely necessary to make the devices accessible. Way back in 2010, we documented some of the emerging technologies that would allow these major companies to employ SDK or Hardware functionality for disabled people to read, but NONE of it went anywhere.
Dedicated e-readers need to employ new software updates to allow every bit of text to be read aloud. If they don’t, there is no way they would have any success with a massive roll-out, unless they had the endorsement of major organizations. Blio is a company that’s been around for a number of years and so far has the greatest support for disabled people. The main factor is that it is limited to PC’s or tablets, not e-readers. The company allows books and all types of media to be read aloud and even has been endorsed by the National Federation of the Blind.
Honestly, you figure that the average school might have roughly one or two kids out of the entire student body that has severe vision problems. There is also a number of dyslectic kids in the school system too, you would figure that a few students would not limit wide-spread adoption. These few students are all represented by a number of very large organizations that take their rights very seriously. Last month the National Federation of the Blind filed a court motion against the Sacramento Public Library Authority because the library was lending NOOK e-readers preloaded with ebooks to its patrons. Unlike some other e-reading devices, the NOOK, which is manufactured and sold by Barnes & Noble, cannot be used by blind and print-disabled readers because it does not have text-to-speech capability or the ability to send content to a Braille display.
I honestly believe that slowly but surely tablets and e-readers are being adopted in the school system, being sold in the student bookstores, and available at the libraries. This allows students to have the ability to support their University, College, or K12 school by buying it directly from the institution. There are massive barriers in making them mandatory in the public educational system to distribute to ALL students because of the inability to appeal to the entire student body. Private schools have an easier time distributing tablets and e-readers to their students because the laws that govern them are different then the public sector.
Michael Kozlowski is the Editor in Chief of Good e-Reader. He has been writing about audiobooks and e-readers for the past ten years. His articles have been picked up by major and local news sources and websites such as the CBC, CNET, Engadget, Huffington Post and the New York Times.