Buzz’s Blog: On Web 3.0 and the Semantic Web

Dec 27 2009   12:37AM GMT

The Web and Folks with Limited Vision, Part 2

Roger King Roger King Profile: Roger King

In the last posting, we looked at the various ways in which folks (like me) with limited vision who are using the Web can help themselves and be helped by others. Today, we look at another issue, one that at first glance, seems to not be directly related to the Web: electronic book readers. However, portable devices are becoming extensions of the Web and the Internet; as more material becomes distributed as electronic downloads, this issue is actually very relevant indeed.

The opportunity.

There is a controversy going on over Amazon’s Kindle reader, and whether it should be used by colleges and universities as a cheaper way to distribute textbooks. The issue has to do with the difficulty that blind students and students with limited vision have when using the Kindle. Objections to its use might be pressuring Amazon to support better text-reading technology, adjustable/large fonts, and audible menus.

I do have to say that the look and feel of readers like the Kindle do provide many folks with limited vision a far more accessible reading source than traditional computer screens.

But these devices could make life far easier for folks with limited vision. Here are some thoughts:

The limitations of paper.

There several problems with paper. Fixed font sizes is one.

So is the tendency for (especially cheap paperback) books to have lines of text packed tightly together. This makes it hard to track lines across the page. And people who have distorted vision because of diseased corneas and other conditions find that lines of text lay on top of each other; when lines are separated by sufficient blank space, and when fonts are reasonably large, distorted vision becomes far less of a problem.

Another problem has to do with the cheap, low contrast paper that is used in paperbacks and professional books. Almost ironically, slick, expensive paper can be a problem too, because its reflective nature increases distortion.

We all have (or will have) limited vision.

In truth, electronic book readers can benefit a large chunk of the reading population. If you live long enough, you are quite likely to develop some sort of vision problem. Ever noticed that ophthalmologist and optometrist offices are often filled with older folks? Down the road a ways, that could be you with nearsighted vision or an astigmatism that can’t be fully corrected with glasses or contacts, or with developing cataracts or macular degeneration.

In fact, somewhere around the age of forty, most of us start needing reading glasses, and the fixed focal length of aging, stiff lenses start making the process of reading somewhat less fun.

Cheap books are often hard to open flat, making magnifying glasses harder to use, as well.

Gracefully adaptive is the answer.

Many folks with limited vision routinely change fonts sizes and styles on electronic documents that we must read. We monkey with browser settings.

Supporting highly flexible settings, rather than just a few alternative font sizes, would make electronic book readers far more adaptable and usable. Being able to increase the space between lines and to change font styles would be a great help.

Being able to turn audio reading on and off fluidly and being able to speed audio reading up for skimming would be great, too.

Also, being able to render images with varying quality would help individuals make that trade-off between visibility and rendering time. Many of us would gladly wait a few seconds to have a clear, sharp image pop up.

The bottom line.

Good/bad vision is a spectrum, with only very young and healthy people being at the far “good” end. Electronic book readers offer an incredible opportunity to make reading far easier for countless people. All we have to do is engineer adaptability into the devices.

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