An Informal Email Survey of Accessibility of EBook Readers

This from Annette Demers: Reference Librarian, Paul Martin Law Library, University of Windsor

When I worked at the Harvard Law School Library, there was a young woman there who was working on her SJD and she was visually impaired. I spent many hours trying to find articles and books for her in an electronic format (which was the only format other than braille with which she could work.) She was a wizard on her computer, and her text reading software was JAWS. When the Harvard libraries Committee on Electronic Resources and Services (to which I was a representative) began to entertain the thought of purchasing ebooks, my number one concern raised with the committee was the accessibility of various ebook readers. It was my contention that the number one user group who will absolutely be using ebooks from the get go, will be our visually impaired patrons.

However, problems do exist which tend to make ebook readers not accessible to this user group. Some ebook providers are focussed heavily on managing the copyright implications of ebooks, and have therefore devised proprietary software readers and file formats which are built almost entirely to restrict what users can see and what they can do with the online books that they’ve downloaded. This is not an acceptable solution for our visually impaired patrons.

Since moving to the University of Windsor, I have sent out emails to a number of the big ebook providers to find out whether or not their products are accessible. My most recent email went out to VitalSource Technologies, the people who will be serving up Irwin Law’s ebook offerings. Here is a summary of the responses I’ve received:

  • Irwin Law (Vital Source Technologies platform)

    Certain screen readers and hardware have been tested, but tech support does not have a complete list. The platform works fully with most standard OS features and enhancements; one reader program was not compatible. They are currently working to compile a list of compatible hardware and will send the information to me when ready.

    Also, Irwin Law books aren’t available on QL to those of us in the academic world (see previous SLAW thread) but if they were, I believe they would be compatible with screen readers as Quicklaw appears to use standard html and search results can be retrieved in Word or plain text formats.

  • ebrary

    ebrary is not compatible with JAWS or similar software. The visually impaired user’s “solution” is to cut and paste the text into JAWS or another document reader.

  • OCLC (NetLibrary)

    The NetLibrary site has been designed with accessibility in mind. NetLibrary worked with a 3rd party,, who tested the NetLibrary site using standard screen reading software (Jaws and Window-Eyes), automated testing software and conducting manual reviews. A help document is available for full instructions on how to read a DRM protected PDF eBook on NetLibrary with the JAWS For Windows (JFW) screen reader software.

  • The Online Books Page

    The Online Books Page points to online books from hundreds of different sources, with varying interfaces and accessibility. The Online Books Page site itself is coded using standard HTML, without scripting or visual icons. Accessible editions of books are selected when available. Every search result on The Online Books Page includes a “Help with reading books” link that goes to a page that includes pointers to help on various formats and readers, including those for readers with disabilities.

  • Safari

    Safari allows the use of screen readers (such as JAWS) for visually impaired persons if Safari is not being used against the terms of service. If the patron’s account becomes locked due to their use of JAWS, Safari can adjust their account to prevent future lockouts.

I just thought I would share my findings with other law librarians out there.

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