Thomas A. Peters writes a report on a project to evaluate downloadable talking books.

The goal of the trial was to enable talking-books centers, libraries for the blind and physically handicapped, other libraries who serve primarily persons who are print-impaired, and individuals who are print-impaired to test and evaluate the accessibility and general usability of this digital-audio-book system.

“184 print-impaired” persons used the service. Most of them liked the actual audiobooks, though they noted that those digital files were severely unusable for anyone accustomed to real talking books, since they lacked bookmarks and other navigation features. (Mainstream audiobooks for sighted people are not the same as talking books.) They also pretty much could not transfer the files to portable players, including players intended for accessible formats like DAISY.

That wasn’t the problem. The problem was that the Web site was inaccessible, as was the playback software, which people couldn’t get to work with the digital-rights management (DRM) that was always assumed to be necessary.

The idea that any organization would conduct at test of accessibility of a product or service with an inaccessible Web site is outrageous. How incompetent can you get? But that’s just what they did.

Respondents to the formal survey covered all five points on the Likert scale, from very accessible to very inaccessible. Testers who sent E-mail messages often noted stumbling blocks and ways to improve the accessibility of the content Web site…. Numerous testers reported problems and frustrations related to the accessibility of Windows Media Player….

Others suggested that the content be offered in a file format other than WMA, because WMA files cannot be played on many playback devices designed specifically for print-impaired users. Other testers suggested that the files be divided into sections, or that media markers be placed at every chapter break. Several suggested ways to improve the searchability and navigability of the catalog, brief displays, and full displays. […]

Overall Accessibility

Responses to this question spanned the entire Likert scale. One tester wrote, “If I were rating the service on a scale where 1 is totally unworkable and 10 is the perfect solution, I’d give this service a 3.” Yet another volunteer tester who had tried various digital audio book systems and playback devices concluded, “This one’s a keeper, definitely a keeper!”

When all feedback received is examined and summarized, overall the group of volunteer testers were encouraged by this service but noted some accessibility challenges [sic ] that would make use of this service less than optimal for print-impaired users. […]

Screen-reader Software

Based on the survey responses and E-mail feedback, it appears that the majority of volunteer testers was using screen reader software, predominantly either Jaws [or] WindowEyes. A few testers, however, used screen-magnification software, and some used neither a screen magnifier nor a screen reader. […]

Several users commented that the screen-reader software program they used read the screen with a British accent, rather than with an American accent. [I don’t even know how that’s possible unless the page authors were so additionally inept that they coded the language as en-UK.] […]

One volunteer – using Windows 98 as an operating system – reported that evidently some of the JavaScript used on the Web site made it impossible for [Jaws 6.0] to find the hotlinks on a Web page.

Several users suggested that the buttons used in the results display should be labeled.

The layout of the results page created some navigation challenges [sic ] for some users of screen-reader software.

One volunteer recommended that the titles of the books be hotlinked.

The actual Web site used in the survey has been destroyed by the researchers. It now is a brochureware page with invalid tag-soup HTML, tables for layout, and images without alt texts. And remember, this is as good as they can make it after they know their site is inaccessible, something they should have known beforehand and corrected.

That page provides extremely helpful information about the project in a single HTML file (discussed below), plus of course Microsoft Word, Microsoft PowerPoint, and Microsoft Windows Media files, which, as we all know, every single “print-impaired” person can read and use with no problems. Oh, except that the subjects really could not use .WMA files without problems:

“I was just trying to download The Kite Runner and I encountered a similar problem. The computer would try to start automatically downloading after I clicked on ‘Download CD Quality.’ Windows Media Player would try to open inside my browser, then give me an error message. I would hit the Back button to get back to the page where I could try downloading it manually, but as soon as I got there, it would try to download automatically again. This repeated until NetLibrary said that I had already downloaded the item the maximum number of times, even though it had never actually downloaded. Very frustrating.” […]

Numerous testers reported the frustration and annoyance when using Windows Media Player of not being able to continue listening to a NetLibrary digital audio book from the point where they left off…. Other testers were confused by the placement of media markers with each book, and they were frustrated by the difficulty in inserting user-defined media markers. One tester wrote, “Being limited to Windows Media Player, I was able to jump to the provided marks, but not able to set my own bookmarks or jump to specific time locations within the file. Consequently, the process of reading was quite restrictive. Unfortunately, the markers were not consistently at the beginning of chapters.”

Several volunteers reported that in general WinAmp is more accessible that Windows Media Player, but there were problems using WinAmp exclusively to access NetLibrary digital audio books. For example, one tester reported, “WinAmp only works after you’ve satisfied the digital right management. The way that I’ve done this so far is to open the file first in Windows Media. Then close Windows Media and open WinAmp. This sets up the file type of WMA to be used by WinAmp instead of Windows Media Player. WinAmp does have a dialogue box that comes up for digital right management, but it isn’t accessible with [Jaws]. The reason that WinAmp is so good to use, is that you can use the left and right arrows to skip through the file [and you can’t in Windows Media Player?].”

“Overall, the quality of the titles was very good, but that experience was impacted very negatively by the limitations of Windows Media Player.” […]

A few testers reported that the process of transferring content from their computers to their portable audio playback devices was relatively complex and required some testing and iteration before they felt comfortable and confident [doing so].

The report

The report itself is a text-only document with numerous typos; 1,292 HTML errors; tag-soup “HTML” output from Microsoft Word; and an actual data table that is marked up as a sequence of inline-styled paragraphs and spans.

Does it get worse? It does.


I told you already that digital rights management could harm people with disabilities and here we have proof that it does.

Several testers reported the annoying process of having to re-license a NetLibrary digital audio book in order to begin or continue listening to it.

Other testers using WinAmp reported problems getting the licensing to work. They found that they had to activate the license to access the content in Windows Media Player, then switch to WinAmp in order to actually listen to the content in a more accessible software environment.

“Unfortunately the box that pops up for to enter your password and user ID is not accessible with Jaws. I could get no forms mode, which allows typing into fill-in boxes on a page. The book itself played real havoc with my memory and when I finally got it to run it caused other applications to fail, including Winamp. I have not had this problem before while using other MP3-format [files] with WinAmp on my computer. I also could not copy or paste my user ID or password… which is very useful when making sure that you have a correct password and user ID.”

The system simply didn’t work for his users, but Peters has the gall to state the following:

The fact that NetLibrary’s digital audio books are in the protected WMA file format, coupled with the fact that Apple iPods and most accessible devices… will not play the WMA file format, is unfortunate. One can only hope that soon both Apple and the manufacturers of accessible playback devices realize that supporting the playback of WMA content is in everyone’s best interest.

Oh, bullshit. Locking blind users into unpublished formats owned by a convicted monopolist is no way to provide accessibility.

  1. Why wouldn’t it be “in everyone’s best interest” for NetLibrary to heed its users’ request to provide files in MP3 and DAISY formats (with page and chapter markers)? Why not also in AAC, Apple’s preferred format?
  2. Why wouldn’t it be “in everyone’s best interest” for Microsoft to abandon the WMA format in favour of MP3 or AAC? Why is Microsoft the null hypothesis?
  3. How is it “in everyone’s best interest” to use WMA files when blind people in several countries, including the U.S., have the legal right to transform literary works into specialized formats they can use? How do blind people use those rights when the source file is DRM-locked?
  4. Are WMA files in the “best interest” of blind people who use Mac or Linux? According to the results of this study, they aren’t even in the “best interest” of Windows users, who had to jump through hoops just to listen to the books.
  5. Why is any kind of file that includes DRM “in everyone’s best interest”? What evidence does Peters have that anyone, at any time, actively sought a limit on what they could do with an audiobook? Who wants a more-complex system with fewer features than a simpler system?

This experiment documents devastating ineptitude on the part of the researchers in providing an inaccessible testing environment. It documents unusable and inaccessible playback systems. It displays culpable arrogance in endorsing a digital-rights-management scheme that the study’s own results show is harmful to “print-impaired” people.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2005.09.20 12:09. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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