Alexa Connects to British Free Audiobooks for the Blind Program
Amazon Alexa in the United Kingdom can now play thousands of free audiobooks provided through the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) Talking Books service. The partnership extends Talking Books to a new format 86 years after it began.
The RNIB created a Talking Books Alexa skill with a library of 34,000 audiobooks. Users with limited or no eyesight can register for the RNIB Library, then use that membership to search for books by title, author or keywords. Talking Books started in 1935 as a service specifically for people who lost their sight during World War I and could not learn Braille. The organizations that eventually became the RNIB set up the Talking Books program beginning with a gramophone record of Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. The media formats have changed, and the catalog has expanded, but the Alexa skill expresses the same basic concept. The service is even more popular in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, with a reported 1.33 million Talking Books distributed in the last year. The Alexa skill is not exclusive, as eligible people can still get audiobooks as CDs or on a USB. The Alexa skill is just faster, immediately streaming the audio files.
“There are some great advantages to accessing your Talking Books this way,” RNIB director of services David Clarke said. “If you start a book but don’t like it, you can immediately choose another one rather than waiting for your next book to arrive in the post. Voice activated technology is bringing us closer to a world where blind and partially sighted people can consume books on a level playing field with sighted people.”
Amazon has been working closely with the RNIB in coordinating and promoting new accessibility features for a while now. The RNIB packaged information about its services and tools into the RNIB Helpline Alexa skill back in April. The skill connects to the RNIB call center via voice command. The RNIB Helpline is staffed with advisors who can answer questions and who helped reduce loneliness and isolation during lockdowns and quarantines during the pandemic.
Amazon staff have also previously trained RNIB staff on how Alexa can best serve the blind and partially sighted. The company promoted those features when it ran an ad in the UK developed with the RNIB. Alexa’s accessibility features for those with difficulty seeing go beyond just Britain, complied in the Alexa Accessibility Hub. For instance, the Show and Tell feature uses Alexa on Echo Show smart displays to identify groceries and other household items, with barcodes added to the list not long after. And Alexa worked with Voiceitt to help people with atypical and impaired speech convey their words in a way the voice assistant understands.
“We love hearing feedback about how customers use Alexa throughout their day,” Alexa UK country manager Dennis Stansbury said. “We are delighted that customers can now access thousands of Talking Books by simply asking Alexa, alongside setting reminders, listening to music and creating shopping lists.”