e-Book Readers: Attempting to Bugger the Blind Is Bad for Business

Accessibility 4 All by Claude Almansi

DoJ’s and DoE’s letter to college and university presidents on e-book readers

On June 29, 2010,  Thomas E. Perez (Assistant Attorney General, Civil Rights Division, U.S. Department of Justice) and Russlynn Ali (Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, U.S. Department of Education) sent a joint letter on electronic book readers:

Dear College or University President:

We write to express concern on the part of the Department of Justice and the Department of Education that colleges and universities are using electronic book readers that are not accessible to students who are blind or have low vision and to seek your help in ensuring that this emerging technology is used in classroom settings in a manner that is permissible under federal law.  A serious problem with some of these devices is that they lack an accessible text-to-speech function.  Requiring use of an emerging technology in a classroom environment when the technology is inaccessible to an entire population of individuals with disabilities–individuals with visual disabilities–is discrimination prohibited by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) unless those individuals are provided accommodations or modifications that permit them to receive all the educational benefits provided by the technology in an equally effective and equally integrated manner.(…)

The Department of Justice recently entered into settlement agreements with colleges and universities that used the Kindle DX, an inaccessible, electronic book reader, in the classroom as part of a pilot study with Amazon.com, Inc.  In summary, the universities agreed not to purchase, require, or recommend use of the Kindle DX, or any other dedicated electronic book reader, unless or until the device is fully accessible to individuals who are blind or have low vision, or the universities provide reasonable accommodation or modification so that a student can acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as sighted students with substantially equivalent ease of use.  The texts of these agreements may be viewed on the Department of Justice’s ADA Web site, www.ada.gov. (To find these settlements on www.ada.gov, search for “Kindle.”)  Consistent with the relief obtained by the Department of Justice in those matters, the Department of Education has also resolved similar complaints against colleges and universities.

As officials of the agencies charged with enforcement and interpretation of the ADA and Section 504, we ask that you take steps to ensure that your college or university refrains from requiring the use of any electronic book reader, or other similar technology, in a teaching or classroom environment as long as the device remains inaccessible to individuals who are blind or have low vision. It is unacceptable for universities to use emerging technology without insisting that this technology be accessible to all students. (…)

(The full joint letter is available on the Department of Education’s and on the U.S. government’s ADA sites).



Cercle formed by the words 'right to read' in black, repeated 3x, with 'overdue' in red forming a bar in the middle

At the launch of the Amazon Kindle 2 e-book reader in February 2009,  Jeff Bezos boasted of its text-to-speech capability. Blind people associations saluted this feature but pointed out that they were unable to use the Kindle 2 because it did not have keyboard commands. Bezos promised that the following version would be usable by the blind.

However, the U.S. Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers  reacted very differently to the announcement of this text-to-speech feature: they alleged that it constituted a new derivative audio work for which separate rights must be paid.

The Reading Rights Coalition — comprising  32 associations of blind and print-disabled people — organized protests against this offensive claim that made copyright violators of all people who have to use text to speech: the blind, but also people with severe dyslexia, cognitive disabilities or with spinal chord injuries preventing them from turning pages, as explained in this video of the April 7, 2009 demonstration in front of the Authors Guild’s seat in New York:

(The video above was uploaded by NationsBlind, the channel of the National Federation of the Blind, on 2009-06-09.)

Amazon people could  have stood by the blind and reading-disabled people: a derivative work must be original to be separately protected by copyright; besides, text-to-speech streams the audio, it does not create a separate object.  Moreover, several authors had expressed their strong dissent with the Authors Guild on this issue.  Instead, Amazon chose to cave in and allowed right-holders to disable text-to-speech in the versions of their works for the Kindle — and to welsh on the promise of an accessible version of the Kindle: the Kindle DX remains unusable by the blind.

Then Amazon offered several universities the opportunity to conduct pilot projects using the Kindle DX. On June 25, 2009, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and the American Council of the Blind (ACB) filed a  discrimination suit against one of them, Arizona State University, and won.

Hence the above joint letter of the US DOJ and DOE to universities and colleges.

And so…

… by disregarding the rights of the blind and the laws protecting these rights,  for the sake of short-term economic advantages, Amazon thus lost the market represented by U.S. universities and colleges.

Non-blind U.S. students too should be very thankful to the NFB and the ACB for having thus protected them from the institutional imposition of a device whose nefarious DRM can spirit away not only Kindle books they have bought but also the notes they have already taken about these books (see Teen sues Amazon: The Kindle ate my homework by Caroline McCarthy. CNET. 2009-07-31). And hopefully, in countries that do not have as good a law as the Americans with Disabilities Act, educational powers-that-be will also refuse to adopt a device that discriminates against blind people.

True, the Kindle is not the only inaccessible e-reader on the market:

Of the e-readers produced by four companies — Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Sony, and Apple — only Apple’s iPad can be used by blind people, said Chris Danielsen, a spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind.

(From Marc Parry’s article about the letter from the Departments of Justice and Education,  Inaccessible E-Readers May Run Afoul of the Law, Feds Warn Colleges, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2010-06-29.)

This seems to answer the Ebook Readers vs. Ipad for Education? question asked here by Tom Preskett (2010-04-09) — for the time being. Hopefully other companies will realize too that it is good for business to make e-readers that everybody can use.


There are more links about the Kindle and accessibility in my diigo bookmarks tagged kindle+blind.

2 Responses

  1. Really interesting developments Claude. it’s interesting that Kindle hadn’t thought about the accessibility issues fully before the pilot group got hold of them. It seems a very expensive and long-winded way of finding out something they could have worked out themselves.

    The elaborate dance between publishers and those that make the devices is an issue that needs sorting out before we can look seriously at the e-book reader option.

    Also, the recent development in the tablet market lead me to think that this is probably where the future lies. A device set up to consume all media effectively seems more desirable.

  2. Thanks, Tom

    The dance you mention also extends beyond e-book readers: presently, big content producers seem more interested in making money by suing “pirates” than by making and selling content. Hence their continued requests for legal protection of DRM measures and prohibition of their circumvention. The producers know full well that these measures don’t work, but their presence is needed to establish that there has been a violation.

    So it’s the copyright regime about works in digital formats that must be change in function of the present situation, towards inciting producers to explore new business models instead of just suing kids (or their grandparents) when they share music or videos or books.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: