Alexa wants to make things easier for you, and that includes reading print materials. As a user with a vision impairment and a print disability, I can’t read standard print in books, on websites, or in other media. After playing with the Echo Dot, I decided to see if Alexa could help me read print materials, and tried out several skills. These skills are useful for everyone, but especially helpful for users with blindness, low vision, vision impairments, learning disabilities, and print disabilities. Here are skills that show how Amazon Alexa can help you read.
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Alexa, read from Kindle
This skill will read the most recent book in the Kindle library, starting from the most recent page. Alexa’s voice will read the text, as opposed to another audio recording. It can also start from the beginning of chapters if needed. I tested this skill with a Harry Potter book and found that Alexa pronounced words correctly and it was easy to follow along. The book must support text-to-speech in order for this to work, though almost all titles support it. The only title I’ve seen that doesn’t support text-to-speech is my Java textbook.
Alexa, read me a bedtime story
When enabled, this skill will read a random story from the Amazon Rapids library for free. The stories are read by professional voice actors and rotate often. This skill is targeted at children, but is great for anyone who wants to hear a silly story before bed. When I tested this skill back in December, it played a story about an elf at Christmas time.
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Alexa, ask Amazon Storytime to read me a story
Amazon Rapids gives prime customers free access to hundreds of independently-created children’s books. The books can be played on the Amazon Rapids app or with Amazon Alexa. This would be great for children that are blind or visually impaired for the descriptive audio alone, and I appreciate that the audio isn’t overly stimulating- no loud or super high pitched noises that could hurt sensitive ears. From what I can tell, the stories in the app are exclusive to Amazon Rapids and are not available as print copies.
Alexa, what’s in the news?
As an alternative to reading the news, users can ask Alexa to deliver a flash briefing from a variety of national and international news sources. I like that I don’t have to worry about surprise flashing lights on the news, and the audio comes through clearly. Flash briefings can last anywhere from two to ten minutes, depending on how many sources there are.
Alexa, read (title) on Audible
With an Audible subscription, Alexa can play any title in their Audible audiobooks library. Audible is different than the Kindle audiobooks because professional voice actors read the book, not Alexa. Users can choose what chapters to start at, fast forward/go backward thirty seconds, and adjust volume. I’m hoping in the future that Amazon will also support other audiobook services, such as those from libraries.
Alexa, read me a poem
This skill requires access to the Amazon Alexa app. This skill sends a link to a random poem to the Alexa app. From there, users can open the poem in a web browser and read it with assistive technology. The poems are classics, making this a great skill for people taking literature classes or who appreciate poetry.
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Alexa, what’s the definition of (a word)?
Using a built-in dictionary, Alexa can look up the definition of any word. There is some difficulty with homonyms and homophones- words that have the same pronunciation and different meanings. Users can also ask to have words spelled, which is great for writing an essay.
Alexa, Wikipedia (word)
Alexa can read Wikipedia articles about a variety of topics when asked. I tested this by asking about my favorite band, and she read information at a smooth and easy to follow pace. After that, I asked her to read an article that featured a chemical formula, and that went well too. This feature is especially helpful when settling a debate between friends or family about a certain topic. Just yesterday, my family used this feature at dinner to learn more about a word we had heard on The Weather Channel to describe an incoming snow storm.
Alexa and Bookshare
Bookshare is an accessible online library for people with print disabilities. Books, magazines, and other publications are available in accessible formats such as EPUB, DAISY, MP3, and more. Previously, I have been able to read Bookshare books by uploading the MP3 files to my Amazon Music Library and having it read the book by asking Alexa to play the file name, but Amazon Music Library is discontinuing its uploading capabilities. I contacted Bookshare in July 2018 and they said that Alexa capabilities are coming very soon.
I consider the Amazon Echo Dot an essential for people with print disabilities, low vision, and blindness. It has so many functions and more are being added every day. In the future, I hope that Amazon will support adding audiobooks from other sources and reading more books from the Kindle app. However, I love all of the features available now, and how Amazon Alexa can help users read.