How DRM screws people with visual disabilities: a report from the front lines

ZDNet's Rupert Goodwins is going blind. Most of us will lose a substantial fraction of our visual acuity, should we live long enough. As a service to his readers, Goodwins is documenting the way that technology can be adapted for people with visual disabilities. It's a fascinating story: as he says, "there's never been a better time to go blind: we are busy converting the world to digital, and digital is supremely easy to convert."

But that's only true as long as there's no DRM in the mix. Once DRM gets into your information stream, your ability to adapt what's happening on your screen to work with your disability is severely curtailed. As Goodwins discovered, the world of ebooks is especially hard on people with visual disabilities.

...[I]t turned out I needed Adobe Digital Editions to 'manage my content'. Some fun later — you have to download it from a particularly brain-dead web page with teeny-tiny dialog boxes that were broken in Chrome and invisible in Firefox — and I had a large blob of code to install on my Windows box.

It tried, of course, to force me to give Adobe my email and other details for the 'Adobe ID' that it assured me I needed to get full functionality. I demurred... and was confronted by a user interface that was tiny white text on a black background. Unreadable. Options to change this? If they exist, I couldn't find them.

Getting this far had taken me half an hour fighting my way through a nest of misery and frustration with broken eyes and a sinking heart. Along the way, I'd been bombarded by marketing messages telling me to "enjoy the experience" and "enjoy your book".

Reader, I wept. Marketing departments, here's a top tip: if your customer is reduced to actual, hot, stinging tears, you may wish to fine-tune your messaging.

This is the reward you get for being disabled and wanting to do the right thing. This is how the world's most splendid machine for freeing our minds from our physical shackles is itself being shackled. This is what will happen to all of you reading this as you get old. I know this, I've done the research: most of you will start to go blind before you die.

Going blind? DRM will dim your world


  1. ctrl + mouse up?  no?   adobe’s kind of crap anyway, but i’m confused, where does DRM come into this?  sounds like a crappy site build, before he ever actually reached any content.

    1. Adobe ‘Digital Editions’ is a client that various DRM-wrapped ebook sites will foist on you, not a site in itself.

      As one might imagine from client software with a UI built entirely in Flash it is not…exactly… god’s gift to usability or good taste even by the standards of those among us with excellent vision. I haven’t done extensive poking at it; but cursory inspection suggests that it is 100% noncompliant with any accessibility options enabled through your OS’es widget set, has sparse or no native options for zoom/readable colors/etc, and quite probably breaks screen readers in an effort to protect the precious content. 

      1. I’ve had to use Adobe Digital Editions (read: Adobe telling you to go poop in your fist.) to borrow ebooks from my *gasp* local library.
        The program fancies itself a “file manager” except it has:
        1.) No Hotkeys nor any way to bind hotkeys
        2.) Won’t react to the right-click key.
        3.) Won’t react to the tab key, completley disabling any kind of keyboard navigation in the program.
        4.) Will automatically delete files from your e-reader if it sees that they’ve expired, even if you are in the process of renewing the borrow.
        5.) Is very dark gray background with about 6pt text.
        6.) The only way to put a file on your nook is to click and drag, but the nook isn’t labeled. It just shows up as a generic looking rectangle in one corner, next to the library and home buttons.

        Half the time it fails at authorizing a legitimate borrow from the library and in bold red text about 3 times bigger than default it warns me to quit attempting to use unauthorized files.

        It’s the shittiest software I’ve ever used.  And it makes me angry that it even exists.  It has labels for obvious ideogram icons, while the tricky indecipherable icons get no labeling at all, no tooltips and no further expainations.

        1. some days, it just feels good to be a pirate. The entire world of attempting to get ebooks via my library just seems like a hostile, barely working, chaotic place, where most likely nothing i want is ever available. i’ll stick to buying my favorite authors drinks at conventions.  (speaking of, i believe i owe cory doctorow a bottle of something nice at this point…hope i get a chance to see you speak live one of these days). I did pay for the shirt though, looking forward to getting kicked off my first plane.  :)

          1. Yeah.  I’m often tempted to pirate books for all the obvious reasons.  They often cost either the same as the hardback edition, or more than the paperback.  That’s absolutely ludicrous, since the way DRM is foobar’d it’s worth less and has fewer features than a real book.  eBooks on certain platforms can be remotely erased from the ereader.  And if you get a new device, you have no other legal choice but to rebuy your library.  On top of that the non-compliance with universal access standards and the inbuilt “safeguards” against fair use make piracy very attractive.

            Legitimate buyers are treated as if they’re suspicious and can’t be granted any real rights to ownership, while pirating gives you every benefit of the legitimate copy, without the hassle or built-in brokenness.  DRM is a cancer on media industries and send the exact wrong messages to everyone.

            It’s like rewarding a recovering alcoholic for days of sobriety by handcuffing them to a bench and injecting them with morphine.  It reinforces the very behavior it tries to deter.  And ends up punishing those who are honest and willing to pay.

          2. Because punishing people who pay you is a great idea.
            It worked so well for the music and movie industry…
            But then these are massive corporations who can’t imagine not making as much as they always did even as costs go down, and they don’t have to adapt as long as they keep pumping money to lawmakers and screaming about imaginary losses that they are inflicting on themselves.

  2. The ebook industry seem determined to repeat every mistake the music industry made in the 90s. The process of buying a book and getting it onto my ereader is so frustrating I generally don’t bother. It’s a neat idea, I like reading books on the ereader, the screen is excellent. But the DRM? Oh boy. I do not understand why I cannot buy an ebook using my computer, which runs Linux, and transfer it to my ereader, which runs…Linux. I have to download onto my girlfriends’ Windows machine, just to unlock it. And then there is region locking. I live in Switzerland, but would like to buy books from the UK. Nope, not allowed. And for some reason the typesetting is crap. I’ve seen more mistakes in 10 months of ebook use than I’ve seen in print for years. Aren’t the printed and ebook text from the same source? Then, as others have commented, the price is usually higher than the paperback, despite having no manufacturing or storage costs, and minimal distribution costs. I’ve pretty much gone back to paper and the postal service.

    But of course these are all (very annoying) inconveniences in comparison to the original story. It’s just sad to see corporate greed blocking what could be a fantastic technology for the blind and partially sighted.

    Maybe I should – indeed, have a responsibility to – pirate ebooks, as this seems to be what eventually forced the music industry to offer a better service?

  3. Having been low vision since birth, computers at first gave me the ability to do more than I had been able to do. With the advent of GUIs, laptops, and smartphones I am struggling again.

    I love my Kindle because it allows me to make type bigger. I hate that DRM’ed books, they cannot be lent more than once and usually not long enough to be read.

    PDFs are so hard to read on a Kindle that I do not even try.

    I hate that screen and UIs appear to be designed by 25 year olds with perfect vision. The “native” resolution is often so tiny that I cannot read it. Often accessibility means huge type with only a few works on the screen at a time.

    The new OS’s require a resolution that is very difficult for me.

    Even books and magazines are coming with smaller and smaller fonts that make them hard to read.

    Content creators need to take your viewers who have less then perfect vision into account. Otherwise you leave more and more out in the cold.

    Eyesight is a continuum. Some people are comfortable with 10 pt type some need 12, some need 14 and some need larger. E books and GUIs need a way to deal with this without disabling functionally.

  4. Is this an area where a class-action suit could be brought under disabilities discrimination law?  That might shake the complacent buggers up.

    The author presents a realistic view of ADE-fail: try once, swear, curse, never try again.  You’d think that if they made it mandatory, they’d also make sure it, y’know, worked.

    1. I suspect that this might be a tricky area: Openly flouting the ADA can be Serious Business, if you get called on it; but it would be a hairy pile of case-law to decide exactly where ‘sucky UI’ ends and ‘UI not legally adequate for the purposes of access under the ADA’ begins…

      1. The ADA was written specifically with real world objects in mind.  It addresses building accessibility via ramps, elevators, drinking fountains, doorknob height, and a myriad of other such technical measures.
        It also addresses broadcast mediums.  TV stations, distributors (like comcast and dish) and the networks are all required to use closed-captioning.  But the internet is not required to be accessible, and programs aren’t either.  Unless there’s some tangentially related case law, I sadly don’t see much precedent for legally forcing internet and software companies into any kind of universal access compliance.  And believe it: they will fight it, and be dragged kicking and screaming.

  5. While we’re in the ”dragged kicking and screaming” mood, let’s try to  find the evil prick who first thought pastel type on white backgrounds was cool and hang him from a lamp post.

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