Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Kindles and the blind

Here’s a curious story:

Three U.S. universities will stop promoting the use of Amazon.com's Kindle DX e-book reader in classrooms after complaints that the device doesn't give blind students equal access to information.

Settlements with Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Pace University in New York City and Reed College in Portland, Oregon, were announced Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Justice. The National Federation of the Blind and the American Council of the Blind had complained that use of the Kindle devices discriminates against students with vision problems.

The complaints about the Kindle were based on the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability.

The three universities were among six schools participating in an Amazon.com pilot program testing the use of the Kindle DX in classrooms. On Monday, a fourth participating school, Arizona State University, also reached a settlement with the DOJ and the two organizations representing the blind.

Three other schools announced in late 2009 they will not deploy Kindle in classrooms.

The Kindle DX has the capability to convert text to synthesized speech, but the device does not include text-to-speech functionality for its menu and navigational controls, the DOJ said in a press release. Some reviewers and users of the device's text-to-speech software have also said the speech is difficult to listen to and the conversion can be inaccurate.

These points are absolutely correct, but doesn't the logic require that the universities stop using books as well? Presumably in classes that do require paper codexes, blind students do not use those editions, but rather Braille editions (or, if students just have very poor vision, large print editions). So why not follow the same policy in this case — Kindles for sighted students and Braille editions for the blind? I'm sure I'm missing something.

(Via Slashdot.)

5 comments:

  • "I'm sure I'm missing something."

    Who profits from the sale of textbooks instead of Kindles?

  • Funny thing is that the Kindle has pretty decent text-to-speech built in. My first impression was that with a bit of tweaking it would be a huge boon to the vision-impaired. Not sure if you can navigate around the menus with speech enabled yet.

  • I am interested enough in this question to hazard a googly answer.

    1. a. Universities currently convert books for blind students by ripping pages out, scanning, and using special software to convert to braille or speech. This has been going on long enough that the playing field is considered as level as it can be made, with hard copies. Differences in accessibility are accepted.

    2. There will be an even bigger time lag between availability of materials for sighted and visually impaired, as the sighted will now be able to immediately access course syallabi, readings, and texts. No more going to store or waiting for postal delivery.

    3. Amazon, with a little bit of extra effort, could have made the Kindle accessible to the blind. They just didn't care enough, the market share wasn't large enough, to go that extra three feet. The technology will be there by next year, with this economic pressure.

    4. The Kindle at this point creates a huge comparative disadvantage for the blind because of all the new advantages it will bring the sighted: bookmarking, connecting to the internet,etc.

    5. If universities are allowed to pilot, invest in, implement the Kindle at this point, they may use up resources that could be put toward the disability-friendly version when it becomes available.

    Cold logic may not be on the side of the blind, in the short run. The moral weight of the argument falls on the side of the blind.

    I speak as the parent of the owner of a $7,000 communication device that is less technologically sophisticated than a $300 computer.
    I speak as the owner of an Ipod Touch with a $200 communication program loaded onto it. (Proloquo2go)

    Accessiblity features of mainstream techology are catching up to those of niche disability technology, but not as fast as they could be and should be, if those with power, or with money, cared. If you're one of the people affected, it hurts.
    Voila, the lawsuit.

  • Sorry if the comment was a little fuzzy in logic. I think the comparative disadvantage posed by books was greatly increased by the lack of accessibility to the Kindle's star features.

  • I also think the case of the blind community was bolstered by the fact that the Kindle could be made accessible to them, with relatively small effort. If that had not been true, it may not have prevailed.

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