June 30, 2010
The U.S. Departments of Education and Justice released a letter yesterday which cautioned colleges to make sure that electronic book readers that are required for students are accessible to the blind.
The letter asked for institutions' help "in ensuring that this emerging technology is used in classroom settings in a manner that is permissible under federal law." The message explained that requiring use of such technology that is inaccessible to people with disabilities is considered to be discrimination under the American with Disabilities Act.
Inside Higher Ed reports that the letter comes one year after the American Council for the Blind and the National Federation for the Blind sued Arizona State University for participating in a pilot program to test the Kindle DX. The groups argued that because blind students could not use the devices, disabled students were not receiving equal rights. The Justice Department eventually investigated Kindle pilot programs at five other colleges, and shut down four of them.
Moreover, last November Syracuse University and the University of Wisconsin at Madison told Amazon that they would not order any Kindles unless accommodations were made to the device so it could be used by the blind. Amazon released a statement saying that the company was working to improve the Kindle for the visually impaired, but so far no changes have been made.
Chris Danielsen, a spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind, told The Chronicle of Higher Education that he hopes the letter will persuade colleges and universities to refuse to work with e-reader vendors unless the devices are equally accessible to blind students.
Danielsen said that out of e-readers created by Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Sony, and Apple, only Apple's iPad can be used by blind people. According to Forbes, all iPads have a standard application called VoiceOver, which allows for audible control of every single menu. The NFB has praised Apple for producing a device that is usable to seeing and visually impaired people alike.
But others said that the letter from the government went overboard. Martin Ringle, chief information officer at Reed College, one of the schools that participated in the Kindle pilot program, told Inside Higher Ed that the federal agencies may have been misguided in their zeal to provide equal access for disabled students.
"It is important to distinguish between the adoption of technology and a pilot study designed to evaluate it," Ringle said in an e-mail quoted by Inside Higher Ed. "Colleges and universities must have the freedom to conduct such assessments in order to determine for themselves the potential value, as well as the shortcomings, of new technologies."
Compiled by Yaffa Klugerman
"Apple's iPad Brings Easy Reading to the Blind," Forbes.com, April 12, 2010, Benjamin Clymer
"Driving Home the Point on Accessibility," InsideHigherEd.com, June 30, 2010, Steve Kolowich
"Inaccessible E-Readers May Run Afoul of the Law, Feds Warn Colleges," Chronicle.com, June 29, 2010, Marc Parry