Random House Publishers began to disable text-to-speech remotely

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Kindle 2 vs Reading Disabled Students

[Update, 13 May: Beginning yesterday, Random House Publishers began to disable text-to-speech remotely. The TTS function has apparently been remotely disabled in over 40 works so far. Affected titles include works by Toni Morrison, Stephen King, and others. Other notable titles include Andrew Meachem's American Lion, and five of the top ten Random House best-sellers in the Kindle store. As a former English major, a teacher, and a lover of books, I can't see how anyone can justify eroding access to popular and classic literature.]

A little-known fact: in my non-IP life, I’m a bit of an education wonk. My mother was a high school English teacher for 30 years, and I work as a part-time SAT and Writing tutor. I specialize in working with dyslexic, ADD/ADHD, and other reading-disabled students–and so, on both personal and professional levels, I am appalled by the backwards approach to equal access espoused by the Author’s Guild during the recent Kindle 2 debacle.

While the Guild claims that they should have the right to selectively block the text-to-speech (TTS) function on the Amazon Kindle 2—due to the “added value” it automatically provides to their work—their response has served to do little more than exclude, alienate, and set back the reading-impaired community.

First, some background on the technology itself: Text-to-speech is a function, available on almost all personal computers for several years now, that translates written text into a computerized voice. (Put aside those images of Stephen Hawking and Speak-N-Spells; the voices are much softer on the ear nowadays.) The TTS function on the Kindle translates e-books to sound. The end result is of decent quality, but isn’t something you’d get particularly excited about.

TTS is not an audiobook. The quality is so disparate that I’d be hard-pressed to say they’re even remotely comparable. Audiobooks are performed and recorded by professional actors and sound technicians, and involve great expense on the part of the publishers. They are performance pieces, subtle, nuanced and genuinely entertaining. (The Harry Potter audiobooks are a phenomenal example.) The Author’s Guild, however, claims that the quality of TTS is improving so rapidlythat someday computerized voices could be on par with, or even superior to, professionally-acted audio books. Putting aside concerns about concerns about (as Cory Doctorow puts it) “the plausibility of the singularity emerging from Amazon’s text-to-speech R&D,” the claim itself is both legally and practically very shaky.

But wait, you say. So what? Who’s affected by all this?

Well, aside from a long list of people who, for one reason or another, cannot physically utilize books, those with text-based learning disabilities are left out in the cold.

Reading disabilities, particularly in youth and adolescence, interfere with nearly every aspect of education and often require prohibitively expensive tests to formally diagnose. (In the DC metro area, a full-spectrum learning diagnostic–often critical for securing standardized test accommodations–can easily cost over $2,000.) Uncounted children have to  cope daily with undiagnosed learning disabilities which manifest as vague, nebulous “difficulties” with seemingly disparate tasks. According to the International Dyslexia Association and Learning Disabilities Association of America, between 4-7% of all school-age children in the United States receive accommodation in school for a learning disability,and 85% of those students (5% overall) have a language-based disability. Estimates of prevalence of language disabilities in the general population can reach as high as an estimated 15-20% of the American population, and at least one study has estimated that as many as one in five children is dyslexic.

Reading disabilities, because of their tangible effect on textual performance, are usually the easiest for educators to identify. Unfortunately, they’re also among the first (along with ADD/ADHD) to be falsely and crassly dismissed as the hallmark of a “slow learner.” On the contrary, reading disabilities often mask otherwise brilliant mathematical, artistic, and analytical minds.

What most people forget is that, on a fundamental level, those with reading disabilities process language differently than a non-disabled reader. A student once explained his dyslexia to me with a familiar analogy; it’s like an older student learning a new language. Dyslexia, he told me, was like a new student translating a passage–a stop-and-go process of read-translate-integrate, which produces a string of words but no obvious coherent meaning. (Having taken Japanese in college, I found the analogy painfully effective.)

For this student and many others, text is quite literally another language. The simple option to have books read aloud to them—even by a computer—is an enormously powerful asset to those with a whole spectrum of difficulties, including dyslexia, ADD/ADHD, and linguistic impairment. English as a Second Language students (whose immersion is, often, primarily aural, and only later textual) also receive the obvious benefits of word-sound association.

Compounding this problem is the fact that reading disabilities last a lifetime.  In a longitudinal setting, text-to-speech offers an invaluable resource; TTS provides continual reinforcement, even as the subject matter or reading level changes. A Kindle with text-to-speech could provide a dyslexic child with a lifetime of reading assistance, opening them up to a whole world of literature and information. College students with textual impairments could access their textbooks in TTS format, providing a level of comprehension that they would otherwise only be able to achieve through a private human reader. We teach young children with technology designed to promote associations between sounds and printed words, but too often we overlook the value this same technology provides for adults.

But beyond the technical and educational debate, there exists a more fundamental, compelling reason to preserve TTS technology and protect its implementation. In the TTS debate, those with reading disabilities face not only a challenge to their ability to utilize technology to learn, but a fundamental challenge to their human rights as ensconced in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 27 guarantees every human being “the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.”

The Author’s Guild seeks not only to prevent further cultural participation by reading-disabled people, but also to deny them the benefits of scientific advancement by blocking an existing technology from performing its intended role—and doing all this while demanding remuneration for a capability they themselves have done nothing to promote. If this is how the Author’s Guild wishes to treat those with reading disabilities—as freeloaders attempting to abuse the “added value” of TTS—then I fear for the future of equal access.