Arizona State and others sued by National Federation of the Blind over Kindle DX use

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A couple of months ago, I reported in Author Rights vs. Disability Rights about a lawsuit brought by the Authors Guild to prevent Amazon from allowing the Kindle 2's text to speech function unless compensation was given to the book's authors.

Enter the National Federation of the Blind with a new lawsuit, again involving the Kindle. The NFB's press release is Lawsuit against Arizona State and complaints against Princeton, Reed, Pace, Darden School of Business and Case Western claiming that Arizona State University's Kindle DX program discriminates against the blind. In this case, the problem isn't the availability of the text to speech feature on the Kindle, it's that the feature itself is inaccessible. Here's the way the NFB explains it,

The menus of the device are not accessible to the blind, however, making it impossible for a blind user to purchase books from Amazon’s Kindle store, select a book to read, activate the text-to-speech feature, and use the advanced reading functions available on the Kindle DX.

ASU and six other institutions are being sued because of the way a device functions. The approach of the NFB is to stop universities from requiring a technology that is inaccessible. Here's more from the NFB's press release,

Darrell Shandrow, a blind student pursuing a degree in journalism at ASU, said: “Not having access to the advanced reading features of the Kindle DX—including the ability to download books and course materials, add my own bookmarks and notes, and look up supplemental information instantly on the Internet when I encounter it in my reading—will lock me out of this new technology and put me and other blind students at a competitive disadvantage relative to our sighted peers. While my peers will have instant access to their course materials in electronic form, I will still have to wait weeks or months for accessible texts to be prepared for me, and these texts will not provide the access and features available to other students. That is why I am standing up for myself and with other blind Americans to end this blatant discrimination.”

At As Your World Changes, a long post going into all sorts of issues regarding the Kindle, the Visually Impaired, and software is posted as Amazon Kindle, Arizona State, Accessibility — What a mess! There's a lot to this post on various aspects of the issue. Here's part of the introduction.

I speak as a former educator who struggled with textbook bulk and price; software engineer with spoken interface development experience; and research manager with technology transfer background. Although not a member of either ACB or NFB, I am a visually impaired avid reader living hours a day with text-to-speech and affectionate owner of many assistive tools described in this blog. Oh, yeah, also an Arizona resident with some insight into ASU programs and ambitions.

Another advocate for the blind, PennyRdr at Penny for Your Thoughts, wrote Leading Blindness Organizations File Suit Against Arizona State University, Register Complaints with Civil Rights Divisions at Department of Education and Department of Justice, and Send Protests to Five Additional Institutions of Higher Education. A long title for another long post touching on a number of issues regarding the Kindle, the law, and disability rights.

Fast forward now to May 6, just a few short weeks after the Team promised to work on making navigation possible for people who can't see the controls. On May 6, Amazon.com released the next version of their Kindle, the Kindle DX. That's the one that six universities are going to give to their students, come the Fall 2009 semester, for the stated purpose of assessing the role of electronic textbooks and reading devices in the classroom. The Kindle DX is bigger than the Kindle 2, and the gray scale is better, and people who can read print are very likely to like the display better, but, and it's a big "but," the controls still don't speak!

It's hard to convince me that it's anything like rocket science to make the navigation controls and the on-screen menus speak, especially when text-to-speech is already built into and working on the device.

In this lawsuit, however, the legal burden falls on the public institution requiring the use of the device rather than on the manufacturer of the device. At Kelly's Corner in Interesting Legal Challenge we read,

My reading of the situation is that it gets to the basic question that needs to be asked much more often when it comes to accessibility and technology. Namely, if an organization who has an obligation to meet a certain level of accessibility is going to deploy technology from another source, how much responsibility does that organization have to ensure accessibility of the technology being deployed?

While accessibility legislation would likely never dictate that Amazon needs to make the Kindle accessible, I say if an organization covered by accessibility legislation is going to use such technology, it has an obligation to ensure accessibility.

This tweet from Cynthia Waddell, along with a couple of her other tweets on the topic, led me to her site at The International Center for Disability Resources on the Internet (ICDRI) where you can find a considerable number of resources on accessibility issues, as well as a few links to articles on the Kindle text to speech issue in general. The ICDRI is associated with Cynthia Says, an accessibility testing site you may have used to test your blogs for accessibility.

The law is clear about publicly funded institutions such as ASU. Discrimination is against the law. Which makes the outcome of the case seem like a given to me. The fallout in terms of what Amazon does with the Kindle in the future, however, is far from being a given. Particularly since the lawsuit from the Authors Guild over who gets paid when Kindle text-to-speech is used still lurks in the wings.

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Virginia DeBolt
BlogHer Technology Contributing Editor
Web Teacher
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