Feds: Make eReaders accessible to all students

Some colleges have agreed to abandon Kindle pilot programs because of accessibility issues.
Some colleges have agreed to abandon Kindle pilot programs because of accessibility issues.

The federal government will help schools and colleges using eReaders such as the Amazon Kindle to comply with laws giving students with disabilities equal access to emerging education technologies, officials announced.

The Departments of Education and Justice stressed the responsibility of colleges and universities to use accessible eReaders in a letter published June 29, after more than a year of complaints from low-sighted and blind students attending colleges that have piloted eReader programs.

Many eReaders have a text-to-speech function that reads words aloud, but the devices lack menus that people who are blind or have low vision can navigate.

Russlyn Ali, assistant secretary for civil rights at the Education Department (ED), said ED officials would watch for eReader programs cropping up in K-12 schools and higher-education institutions. Technical assistance will be provided on a “case-by-case basis,” she said, and the government will be “responsive” to any IT decision makers bringing eReaders to their school or campus.

Most of the complaints have come from colleges and universities that have launched pilot programs using the Amazon Kindle and Kindle DX, including Pace University, Princeton University, Case Western University, and the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, Ali said.

Ali said ED officials “were not in the business of endorsing any product,” and there are no plans to publish a list of acceptable eReaders because the technology is evolving so rapidly.

“I can imagine a list becoming obsolete very quickly,” said Ali, who added that federal officials have not received any complaints about the Apple iPad since its introduction in April. “While these devices are changing, the principles and the laws do not.”

Ali said, “It is our understanding [that Amazon] will be coming out with a fully accessible” eReader, although she wasn’t aware of a time frame. Amazon did not respond to an interview request by press time, but a March 2009 post on the company’s official blog declared the company is working on a more accessible Kindle and looks “forward to making it available in the future.”

Pace, Case Western, and Reed College in Portland, Ore., announced in January that they would not use the Kindle DX eReader under terms of an agreement reached early this year with the Justice Department.

Arizona State University ended its Kindle pilot this spring after the National Federation of the Blind and the American Council of the Blind filed a discrimination lawsuit. The settlement did not involve payment, but ASU pledged that it would “strive to use devices that are accessible to the blind” in future eReader programs, according to a university statement.

“Technology can be a driving force in making equal educational opportunity a reality,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement. “Given what technology now makes possible, no student should be the denied the opportunity to benefit from an enhanced educational experience based simply on a visual disability.”

Chris Danielsen, a spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind, said the organization was pleased with the federal government’s focus on the accessibility issue, adding that NFB officials will keep close watch as eReaders become more common on college campuses.

“We feel very strongly that eBooks are going to catch on very fast in higher education, and if we’re not vigilant about it, blind students will be left behind,” he said. “There’s no good reason eBooks should be inaccessible to blind people. … This technology has the potential to benefit everybody, but it won’t benefit everybody if it’s not properly designed.”

Danielson said there’s a good reason that federal education officials haven’t logged complaints about Apple’s iPad: the large menu screen is far more accessible than other eReaders.

“The iPad is considerably closer to an eReading solution that will be effective for blind students than other products are out there,” Danielson said. “I don’t know whether it’s perfect or not, but Apple has clearly thought about accessibility and made and effort to improve it.”

The Darden School of Business’s Kindle DX pilot showed students weren’t quite ready to embrace the eReader over traditional textbooks.

When asked if they would recommend the Kindle DX to an incoming business school student, nearly eight in 10 respondents said “no,” according to a university release. A different question solicited a much more positive result: When asked if they would recommend the Kindle DX to an incoming student “as a personal reading device,” nine out of 10 respondents said “yes.”

“You must be highly engaged in the classroom every day,” said Michael Koenig, the business school’s director of MBA operations who headed the pilot program. He added that the Kindle is “not flexible enough. … It could be clunky. You can’t move between pages, documents, charts, and graphs simply or easily enough, compared to the paper alternatives.”

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