Universities Say New Kindle Discriminates Against The Blind

By Yaffa Klugerman
November 13, 2009

Two universities are refusing to buy Amazon's new Kindle e-book reader, saying that the blind cannot use it without assistance from others.

Syracuse University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison own some Kindles purchased for students to try, but now both schools say they will not purchase any more until changes are made to accommodate the visually impaired. The problem, explains National Public Radio, is that even though the device has the ability to read text out loud, the option can only be activated through on-screen controls. Therefore, a blind person cannot use the Kindle without the assistance of a sighted helper.

Officials see the Kindle boycott as an important step. Pamela McLaughlin, a spokesperson for the Syracuse University library, explained to NPR that refusing to buy the device because it's not accessible to the blind gives "incentive for those vendors to actually change their business practices."

The Associated Press [from an article originally located at http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5jEvsVQEnfo1Y-ibxGgcsCqTzjOJwD9BT4BD81] reports that an Amazon spokesman said the company was working to improve the device for visually impaired customers. But Eve Hill, senior vice president at SU's Burton Blatt Institute, which advocates for people with disabilities, told NPR that Amazon's response was "simply not an adequate answer."

Hill told The Chronicle of Higher Education that Amazon "just needs to focus on it and get it done. They're just not prioritizing it."

Amazon launched the Kindle DX in May, which has a larger screen to accommodate charts and graphs and is specifically geared for textbooks. Seven colleges, including Pace, Princeton and Case Western, agreed to test out the new devices.

The AP reports that the National Federation of the Blind sued Arizona State University, one of the schools that participated in the pilot program, for discriminating against blind students. In addition, the group filed complaints with the Department of Justice against five other schools that are testing out the Kindle DX.

The move to shun the devices was applauded by NFB. "We do not oppose electronic textbooks," noted Dr. Marc Maurer, president of the group, in a press release. "In fact, they hold great promise to blind students if they are accessible. But as long as the interface of the Kindle DX is inaccessible to the blind--denying blind students access to electronic textbooks or the advanced features available to read and annotate them--it is our position that no university should consider this device to be a viable e-book solution for its students."

Ironically, Syracuse University could probably put some new Kindles to good use. Inside Higher Ed reports today that the school's libraries are close to full capacity, and officials recently proposed a plan to move rarely-used books to a storage facility 250 miles away. At least 200 faculty and students rallied against the plan, with many claiming that library space had been misallocated.

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