A group of MPs has asked the Government to ensure that people with disabilities can access eBooks after an inquiry found that anti-copying technology is excluding disabled users.

The call came from the All Party Parliamentary Internet Group (APIG), a discussion forum for new media industries and parliamentarians, which released a report on Digital Rights Management this week.

Many people with visual impairments rely on a screen reader to read the content of a digital page aloud or they have the page displayed with a Braille device. But assistive technologies can only operate when the content is compatible – and eBooks are often incompatible.

RNIB told the inquiry that Adobe eBooks usually have accessibility settings disabled and that Microsoft eBooks reader implement "owner exclusive" markings so cannot be transferred to a Braille device.

In some cases, RNIB said "audio rights" to a book had been sold to another party and the eBook publisher was cautious not to infringe. The charity pointed out that there is a significant difference between a trained actor's performance in creating an audio-book for the mass-market and what can be achieved by computerised text-to-speech systems. "There is clearly no likelihood of the latter damaging sales of the former," noted the APIG report.

At APIG's oral hearing, Lynn Holdsworth, a visually impaired person, said she had bought an eBook from Amazon only to find that screen readers had been "locked out". Neither Amazon nor the publisher was able to help her – so she obtained an illegal copy which her screen reader could interpret.

APIG called upon the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to "review the level of funding for pilot projects that address access to eBooks by those with visual disabilities". It also recommended "that action is taken if they are failing to achieve positive results."

Website Accessibility Conference 2006

A UK national conference on best-practice public sector website accessibility takes place on 13th June in Edinburgh, organised by Parallel 56, User Vision and OUT-LAW.

Event details at Parallel 56's website