Initial Impressions of Adobe’s Digital Editions Accessibility Update

I’ve written more than once about frustrations with books from libraries and other sources that require Adobe’s Digital Editions to access the content. Today Adobe announced an update with some level of accessibility support in a 1.8 preview to this product. The announcement says in part:


Digital Editions 1.8 has enhanced keyboard support, provides additional text magnification, support for high-contrast mode color-switching, and interoperability with the UIAutomation accessibility API to allow screen readers to read eBooks.


Take note though for screen readers in particular, Adobe indicates that as of now only Freedom Scientific’s JAWS on Windows and VoiceOver on the Macintosh are supported. Adobe indicates they are working with other companies in the industry to add support.


After trying this preview with JAWS on Windows with both a Welcome document included with the software and with a range of books from my local library I have a mixed impression. You can access the text of the books. That said, I’m not sure I’d agree with Adobe’s comment in the announcement that I should be able to read books successfully just yet. Hopefully this experience is improved.


In the welcome document, for example, all the text from what would seem to be a table of contents on page 1 is run together on a single line. Further, items that are indicated as links do not seem to have any method for link activation. Moving to page 2 in the same document, I’m greeted by the word “link”, repeated at least 20 times, again all on a single line.


Trying more complex documents such as software development manuals, recipe books, poetry and other material where format is important, more often than not, any meaningful formatting wasn’t present. At best tabular data had line endings so each cell of a table was a unique line. In many other cases, text was run together, much like the first page of the welcome document.


Reading books that contained little formatting, such as a novel, I was successful in reading text. However, it was easy to crash Digital Editions on demand by simply using a JAWS command to read by paragraph. The key combination is ctrl+down arrow and pressing it caused Digital Editions to crash instantly and disappear from memory. In the software testing world, we’d call this bug a 100% repro.


In the announcement talking about this preview of Digital Editions 1.8, Adobe does request feedback. I’d encourage readers to try this preview and give Adobe all the feedback you can. Adobe is also holding a drawing where multiple gift cards to online booksellers will be awarded. Card winners will be announced on July 25, at noon eastern U.S. time.


Updated Information as of 7/21/2011


Adobe replied on their blog linked here and on Twitter indicating that ctrl+F7 on Windows will present a dialog of links from a page. This key is also listed in the welcome document but see my earlier comments about tabular data not always being presented in a reading friendly fashion. This does work in the books I tried. I would expect to be able to open the links from the content too, much like you can when reading web pages. Link lists are handy but links taken out of context do not always make sense.

How Libraries Missed on Accessibility of EBooks

Several years ago I had the good fortune to take a trip to London. I recall how exciting it was to be able to walk around the city using an electronic copy of a travel guide I had downloaded while on my trip from my local library back in Washington State. For someone who has tried probably every method of accessing books around, this was an exciting time. True, the books were in the PDF format but by and large things worked to the point where you could access the books and libraries were just starting to really get into the online book world.


All I can say is that it is a good thing I’m not taking that same trip today. Libraries, largely living off public tax dollars, have ruined this opportunity. While libraries continue to make electronic books available, by and large they do so by supporting what has become a completely inaccessible platform with books made available in Adobe’s Digital Editions. The library staff I have talked to say this really isn’t their fault and they are just buying services and books from OverDrive. OverDrive passes the buck and blames Adobe. Adobe promises accessibility in the next version of Digital Editions.


Based on reports from the recent National Federation of the Blind summer convention, I’m lead to believe that Adobe is close to delivering on some level of accessibility in Digital Editions. Reports from those in attendance indicate Adobe gave demonstrations of something working here. However, even if Adobe released a 100% accessible and feature-rich version of Digital Editions today, I believe the situation libraries have allowed to exist is an important public policy question deserving of greater examination. Further, searching of Adobe’s web offerings still shows no firm info about anything official on an accessible Digital Editions.


Libraries should be held accountable to answer for what they are doing spending public money on such an inaccessible book platform. Based on the little financial data I’ve been able to obtain, I’m guessing OverDrive makes a healthy living off of the money libraries spend. According to representatives from the King County Library System, that institution will spend approximately $150,000 for books that end up being in the Digital Editions format in 2011. The Seattle Public Library was unwilling to detail spending on strictly eBooks but indicated the library would be spending a total of $600,000 with OverDrive for online books in all formats. Imagine the public dollars spent across the United States given what these two libraries are spending as just two examples. Obviously much of the income OverDrive takes in pays for the book content and such but by all impressions I have the company is in no danger of going out of business.


At one point the Los Angeles Public Library took a stand and said enough was enough and indicated they’d stop purchasing inaccessible books. So far I’ve been unable to determine any updates on that stand aside from seeing books with copyrights newer than the announcement of such a policy being available on the library’s web site. I welcome any updates people have because at least in theory I think the stand the Los Angeles Public Library took is what every library should have done. Instead all seem to have simply passed the buck and largely missed an opportunity to address the accessibility of eBooks.


Sure there is blame to go around and as I say maybe Adobe will finally deliver. One can only wonder how things would have turned out if libraries had turned off the public money faucet to OverDrive when this problem first appeared though. I’d be willing to bet OverDrive would be pressing a lot harder for Adobe to do something. Instead they seem to find it easier to pay $50 for Bookshare memberships for the few people who stumble on the fact that some libraries who have OverDrive services are taking part in a program from OverDrive for such subscriptions.


We have choices where our public dollars are spent. The platforms used for electronic books by libraries regressed from something that was working. Libraries should not have tolerated this in the least. They should stand up now and turn off the money. That is what gets companies to listen. It takes enough time and effort to make something accessible that when we reach that milestone we need to guard against steps in reverse. Public spending is one tool we should be using. Companies have the choice as to how they want to invest in accessibility but we then too have the choice where to spend our tax dollars. Libraries really blew an excellent opportunity to stand up for accessibility.

MLB’s iPhone App Update Disappointing From an Accessibility Perspective

Major League Baseball (MLB) released an update to their At Bat iPhone app today. All I can say is what a disappointment. While they did fix an issue with buttons to indicate radio stations when playing audio missing names for VoiceOver, as near as I can determine none of the other major accessibility bugs, such as those I detailed recently, have been addressed.


The ironic thing is that the issue of station buttons being nameless is something MLB broke two app updates ago. Taking the glass is half full perspective one I suppose can be appreciative that MLB fixed what they broke. But the fact that basic things like button names were broke in the first place has to call into question MLB’s claims that they are taking accessibility seriously. Fixing what was working because poor attention to accessibility broke it is not progress. Failing to address fundamental problems like player details on the At Bat roster pages reading is nothing more than comma after comma, well sorry but that’s not being committed to accessibility.


What I find interesting is that when I first reported the station name problem to MLB a few weeks ago, they called me several times ensuring me there wasn’t a problem. I ended up having a 30 minute conversation with a phone representative who told me at least five times they knew all about VoiceOver and that there were no problems. Only when I convinced this person to turn VoiceOver on and demonstrated that there was an actual problem, did this person stop telling me nothing was wrong. Ironically the individual who told me they knew all about VoiceOver then asked me how to turn it off because “we are not allowed to keep VoiceOver running on our phones.”


I work in the software business. I know it takes time to fix issues and all. MLB has gone out of their way to state loudly that they care about accessibility. I think it is then within reason to expect them to demonstrate this commitment with actions and not just words.