Update: An Amazon.com spokeswoman did return my call after this story aired, but declined to comment.
Blind people – including former New York Governor David Paterson – are planning to protest at Amazon.com today. They want the company to make its Kindle device and apps more accessible to the visually impaired, especially kids as e-readers start to be used in schools.
We invited Mike Mello, president of the Greater Seattle Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind, to come to the KPLU studio and explain the federation's concerns about Amazon's Kindle.
He says to understand what blind people would like from Amazon, it helps to have an example of a device that does work. He says Apple products are accessible for the blind.
He takes out his iPhone 5 and a special braille display that connects to his phone via Bluetooth. That way he's able to navigate his phone using Braille or the voice navigation system built into the phone. Apple products, like the iPhone and iPad, have a text to speech function, which Mello demonstrates with a book of fairy tales he’s downloaded onto his phone.
Mello says some Kindles also have text to speech, but they lack a lot of other things. For example, Apple devices let you read word by word or jump to another chapter or spell a word.
But he says Amazon hasn’t built those kinds of capabilities into the Kindle. That’s an issue because Amazon is increasingly trying to promote Kindle devices and content in schools.
"If the sighted child is looking at a Kindle and able to tap on a word for more information, link to extended content, or change to a separate chapter if the class has moved onto to another story or another section, the blind student is left behind and isn’t able to do that," Mello said.
And Mello says even worse – the Kindle app on the iPhone lacks any kind of text to speech function at all.
I emailed and called Amazon spokespeople several times to get their response, but no one got back to me.
This is not a new issue. The National Federation of the Blind sued Arizona State University three years ago to block its adoption of Kindles because blind people couldn’t use them. Mello says he’s not sure how common e-readers are in K-12 schools.
"I do know that we’ve had several children in classrooms that have not been able to access this new-age content," Mello said. "And even if it's one kid, we’re concerned."
Mello says so far the company hasn’t been that receptive, but he’s hoping the protest will get Amazon’s attention.