Challenge to the Kindle

July 6, 2009

The slow but inexorable move to electronic textbooks, accelerated by the emergence of e-readers like Amazon's Kindle and the Sony Reader, holds great promise for students who are visually impaired. Digital formats can easily be transferred into audio recordings or texts printed in Braille, avoiding the piecemeal system by which most colleges' disability resource centers turn individual textbooks into versions that are accessible to the blind.

But instead of welcoming May's news that numerous colleges were experimenting with Amazon's Kindle DX as a way to bring digital textbooks to their students, advocates for the visually impaired are strenuously objecting to it. The National Federation of the Blind and the American Council of the Blind filed a lawsuit last month against Arizona State University, saying that its plan to use the Kindle to distribute books to students is illegal because blind people cannot use the device as currently configured. (The groups also asked the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice to examine the Kindle deployments planned by the five other colleges.) The Kindle DX has built-in technology that translates digital books into audio, but users can get to that feature only through on-screen menus that are not accessible to the blind.

"It's unfair to blind people for this device to be deployed but for blind students not have access to it," said Chris Danielson, director of public relations for the National Federation of the Blind. "It's ironic, because this is a technical development that should improve accessibility for blind students. But the reality is that right now it doesn't. And until it does, these colleges should hold off."

A spokesman for Arizona State, Virgil Renzulli, said the university is "committed to equal access for all students." The university has joined in a pilot program for the Kindle reader for a single course where students may also access traditional textbooks. Renzulli said that Arizona State will help any visually impaired students in those courses, as it does all students, through its disability resource centers that provide "the necessary tools so that all students with disabilities have an equal opportunity to be successful in their academic pursuits."

Advocates for the blind are no fans of the historically expensive, time-intensive system by which most colleges make textbooks accessible to visually impaired students, which require campus disability resource centers to rip up physical textbooks and transform them into digital files that can be run through text-to-speech software or turned into braille versions.

The emergence of publisher-produced digital textbooks has occurred for other reasons, but the development has enormous potential for the blind -- a promise that is already incorporated into the Kindle DX. The device has "read-to-me" software that allows users to "switch back and forth between reading and listening," and enabling them to "choose from both male and female voices which can be sped up or slowed down to suit your preference," per Amazon's promotional material.

But the catch, to the dismay of Darrell Shandrow, a blind student at Arizona State and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, is that the only way to turn on Kindle's text-to-speech function (or to select a book or use any of the device's many other features, for that matter) is to use its on-screen menu -- which is inaccessible to the visually impaired.

Software exists that can use audio or keyboard shortcuts to make menus available, says Danielson of the federation for the blind. But Amazon has chosen not to incorporate that technology into the Kindle at this point, and by adopting the device as-is, Arizona State and the other universities are violating the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the groups allege in their lawsuit and federal complaints.

"Given the highly-advanced technology involved, there is no good reason that Amazon’s Kindle DX device should be inaccessible to blind students," Marc Maurer, the federation's president, said in a prepared statement. "Amazon could have used the same text-to-speech technology that reads e-books on the device aloud to make its menus accessible to the blind, but it chose not to do so. Worse yet, six American higher education institutions that are subject to federal laws requiring that they not discriminate against students with disabilities plan to deploy this device, even though they know that it cannot be used by blind students."

Officials at Amazon did not respond to multiple requests for comment about Kindle's technology. In addition to the statement from Arizona State, administrators at some of the other colleges in Amazon's textbook experiment (Case Western Reserve University, the University of Virginia's business school, Pace and Princeton Universities, and Reed College) said they had no intention of discriminating against the visually impaired.

“Our pilot program is a limited test through which we intend to assess the usefulness of the Kindle devices for our students," read a statement from Pace University. "We have not yet finalized the details of our test or adopted the Kindle device on a widespread basis or as a part of a formal or required aspect of Pace’s curriculum. Of course we will be sure to accommodate any student with a disability, including blindness, appropriately and according to all applicable laws.”

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