Braille Monitor                                                February 2013

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Information and the Right to Live in the World: The Challenge for the Blind of the Twenty-first Century

by Gary Wunder

Gary WunderTo kindle is “to arouse or inspire,” a fine name for a product intended to transmit knowledge. But the name makes a promise to some, while denying that promise to others.

Several large companies are currently competing for dominance in the marketplace for the distribution of electronic books: who will publish them and in which proprietary formats? Where will people buy them, and what devices will they use to display them? These questions are setting the course for some of the largest technology companies in the United States and the world, and the blind have a major stake in the outcome of the struggle.

Amazon is the largest print bookstore in the world; it is also one of the nation's largest retailers, certainly the largest in the online arena. The Kindle is Amazon's device for reading the electronic books it publishes, and, just as it has done in print, the company is trying to become the dominant retailer of electronic books in the format it has developed.

The Kindle has gotten favorable notice by the public for several reasons. One is its relatively low cost. Amazon has chosen to sell versions of the Kindle at a loss. The strategy is not unique to the company. Many computer printers are sold at a loss because the company knows it will make a profit on the ink or toner required to use them. Amazon believes it will recover the cost of its book reader as customers purchase Kindle books.

The Kindle is also known for the realistic way it displays books. So intent are the designers of e-book readers to emulate the reading of a printed book that turning a page has the look of doing it with paper. So elaborate is this scheme that one can even simulate the wrinkling of a page, a concept completely foreign to the e-book but frequently experienced by the reader of a traditional paper book.

To gain and retain market share, Amazon has made a significant effort to enter the public schools. If textbooks and recreational reading in the classroom are made available using a Kindle, children will come to associate the device with the joy of reading in the same way many associate that pleasure with the touch or the smell of a bound volume. Amazon believes so strongly in this strategy that it has not only offered its products to schools at a loss but offered to give Kindles to schools if they will purchase books from the company.

So what do blind people have against the Kindle and its introduction into the public schools: in a word, inaccessibility. The Kindle is advertised as having the ability to turn text into speech; Amazon therefore argues that this makes its device and its books accessible. Unfortunately that argument is flawed, and it is the job of the National Federation of the Blind to tell Amazon and the general public why.

Since 2009 Kindle has indeed had the ability to speak, but early on it made an agreement with publishers to disable its speech if a publisher requested it be disabled. Authors and publishers argued that the sales of audio books might be diminished if the Kindle could provide narration through its text-to-speech option. Anyone who has heard the quality of synthetic speech and really wants a quality audio experience will understand that this concern has no merit. Even blind people who read using synthetic speech overwhelmingly prefer human narration when it is available, and few sighted people can come to understand the synthetic voices used on handheld devices without hours of exposure and concentration.

The second flaw in Amazon's argument that the Kindle is accessible is that the menus used to operate the product do not reliably speak. Before one can read a book, he or she must be able to open the book shelf (the Kindle can also play music and movies), find the desired book, open it, and activate the function to start playing it. Only after these steps can a reader take advantage of the book's contents. But reading, especially reading textbooks, is more involved than starting and stopping narration. A student must be able to review a passage he or she has already read, sometimes examining it sentence by sentence, word by word, and even character by character to determine the spelling of a word. None of these functions can be performed on most versions of the Kindle, and few can be performed on the most current model.

To simplify the comparison between the Kindle and other e-book readers on the market, the NFB prepared a chart which lists ten features each device should have and then identifies which of the units being compared can perform that function. The products compared are the Kindle, the iBook, and Blio. In all ten cases the Kindle cannot perform the identified function, while the iBook produced by Apple and Blio, book-reading software that runs on many platforms, can. Since it is the schools that are being asked to embrace the Kindle, each function is connected to the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. These are the standards by which students and their schools are evaluated.

There you have the comparison, but wait: Amazon advances another argument to support the use of its books in the public schools. It has developed software called Whispercast that will allow its books to be read on other devices such as the popular iDevices from Apple and the Android devices from Google. The pitch is "Let the students bring their own devices," a bonus to the schools who won't have to buy them. Since Android and iOS devices have been built with accessibility for the blind in mind, one might assume that the inaccessible Kindle e-books would be accessible when transferred by Whispercast to one of these, but the sad truth is that they are not.

After years of discussion between the National Federation of the Blind and Amazon, meetings characterized by promises of access soon to come and subsequent releases of devices that still did not talk or allow access with refreshable Braille devices, last fall the Federation decided it was time to act. Marketing a book-reading device that the blind couldn't use was bad enough given how easily computing devices can be made to talk and work with Braille displays, but pushing to get them into our nation's schools crossed a line that the blind dared not ignore. On December 5, 2012, we paid to publish an ad in the magazine Education Week. The goal was to reach teachers and school administrators and remind them that both the Department of Justice and the Department of Education have jointly written and signed a letter saying that devices used in K-12 schools must be usable by blind students and staff. We wrote and distributed press releases with the same message.

Keeping the promise we made in the release, on December 12, 2012, nearly a hundred Federationists and supporters took our message to Amazon headquarters in Seattle by carrying signs and shouting chants to make it clear that blind people will not stand for technological inequality for our children and will not let Amazon turn our schools into places where blind people go to observe passively while others read, write, and learn. Here is the press release issued before the Amazon protest in Seattle.

National Federation of the Blind Condemns Amazon’s Push to Put Kindle E-books in Schools
Blind Americans Will Protest at Amazon Headquarters

In protest of a recent push by Amazon.com to put Kindle e-books, which are inaccessible to blind students, into K-12 classrooms across the country, members and supporters of the National Federation of the Blind will conduct an informational picket at the company’s headquarters on Wednesday, December 12. The action comes on the heels of Amazon’s launch of Whispercast, a system designed to allow teachers and school administrators to push Kindle e-books to different devices, theoretically allowing the sharing of content among devices brought to school by the students.

Kindle content, unlike some other e-book products, is not accessible to blind students, even on devices that are themselves accessible to the blind, such as personal computers and iPads. This is because Amazon makes Kindle content available only to its own proprietary text-to-speech engine, if at all, rather than to accessibility applications of the reader’s choice. Furthermore, the limited accessibility features that Amazon has implemented do not allow for the kind of detailed reading that students need to do in an educational setting. Although the books can be read aloud with text-to-speech, the student cannot use the accessibility features of his or her device to learn proper spelling and punctuation, look up words in the dictionary, annotate or highlight significant passages, or take advantage of the many other features that Kindle devices and applications make available to sighted students. Kindle e-books also cannot be displayed on Braille devices, making them inaccessible to blind and deaf-blind students who read Braille. 

Dr. Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind, said: “Amazon has repeatedly demonstrated utter indifference to the recommendations of blind Americans for full accessibility of its Kindle e-books and failed to follow the best practices of other e-book providers. Blind Americans will not tolerate this behavior any longer. While we urge Amazon to correct the many obvious deficiencies in its implementation of accessibility and remain willing to work with the company to help it do so, we will oppose the integration of these products into America’s classrooms until Amazon addresses these deficiencies. Putting inaccessible technology in the classroom not only discriminates against blind students and segregates them from their peers but also violates the law.” 

For more information on this important issue, please visit <www.nfb.org/kindle-books>.

So said the release, and so too said those who came to Seattle with the message that blind people are not willing to be consigned to lives of idleness and illiteracy. For three hours Amazon employees and those on the street where the building was located saw signs with messages on both sides saying:

Fix Kindle Books Now!
Don't Leave Blind Kids Behind!

Equal Access in the Classroom!
Make Kindle Books Accessible!

Stop Segregating Blind Students!
Stop Sending Broken Books to Schools!

Marc Maurer leads people of all ages to demonstrate for the right of K-12 students to be literate and to read alongside their sighted classmates.Echoing the same themes, pedestrians and drivers with their windows open got a bit of Christmas cheer with a song created for the occasion (sung to the tune of “Jingle Bells”).

Kindle books, Kindle books, we should have them too/Without access for the blind, the Kindle is boo-hoo/Amazon sells e-books, but keeps them from the blind/But when those books are used, the schools are truly in a bind/Blind kids wish to read, but Bezos tells them no/Amazon please fix your books or they will have to go/Dashing through the school, with a Kindle in their hand/O'er the words they go, this device should be banned/Cannot really learn, making blind kids struggle/But oh what fun it would be if it were accessible.

For a little more holiday cheer and information we sang:

All I want for Christmas is a Kindle I can read, a Kindle I can read, a Kindle I can read; All I want for Christmas is a Kindle I can read, so I can read along with my peers.

I'm dreaming of an accessible Kindle, just like iBooks on the Blio,/Where I navigate freely, and read seamlessly/All of my core curriculum.

All we are saying, is we want to read.

Of course what is a protest without a few chants?

Two, four, six, eight, whose e-books do not rate? Amazon, Amazon, Amazon
            What e-books discriminate against the blind: Kindle,/Who should fix them: Amazon.
            No access to Whispercast speaks louder than words!
            Kindle teaches inequality in the classroom!
            Inaccessibility equals inequality!
            Amazon's whispered message is inaccessibility!
            More books for us!/More money for you!/Why not do what you're supposed to do!
            Amazon has books!/Blind guys have money!/The lack of access isn't even funny!
            Four, three, two, one!/Whose e-books are no fun?/Amazon’s, Amazon's.

Mid-way through our three-hour visit, NFB President Marc Maurer, NFB Director of Strategic Planning John Paré, and NFB General Counsel Mehgan Sidhu delivered fifteen letters addressed to Jeff Bezos, the president and chief executive officer of Amazon. These had been written by students, parents, and others concerned that blind students be provided an equal chance to read and write. One of those letters was written by Carlton Ann Walker, the parent of a blind daughter. Here is what she said to Mr. Bezos:

November 27, 2012

Dear Mr. Bezos,

I write to you concerning Amazon's efforts to deploy Kindle devices, e-books, and related software in elementary and secondary schools throughout the United States. I am both an attorney and a teacher of students with blindness/visual impairment. I am also the mother of a blind child. While I enjoy e-books and recognize the value of technology in the classroom, I am concerned that Amazon Kindle products are not accessible to individuals who are blind.

“What's the problem?” some may ask. Can't blind children just use other, accessible technology, even if it doesn't contain all the features of the Kindle products? No. “Separate but equal” has been discredited as an effective educational methodology. When our blind students are excluded from the general curriculum by inaccessible technology, they are excluded from the education to which they are entitled. Federal law prohibits school districts from utilizing inaccessible technology. Through this program Amazon is inducing school districts into illegal action. Surely Amazon does not want to engage in such dubious behavior.

This matter hit home with me just a few months ago. Prior to the start of sixth grade, my daughter came to me crying. In addition to the typical fears of entering middle school, she was petrified of her school's plan to utilize Kindle technology throughout her classes. She knew that Kindles are inaccessible to her. She knew the Kindle e-books are inaccessible, even when she attempts to use them on her accessible devices. My little girl saw Kindles as yet another way she would be excluded from her peers. Please make the Kindle and its e-books accessible so that my daughter may experience the wealth of learning and collaboration opportunities Kindle and its associated products offer.

The saddest part of this whole matter is that accessibility is not difficult to achieve. Even extremely visual technologies, such as the iOS GUI, have been made accessible to individuals who are blind/visually impaired. I simply cannot understand why an innovative company such as Amazon has not yet built accessibility into its products. I hope that Amazon will soon do so.

Technological accessibility is no different from the physical accessibility offered by wheelchair ramps. Despite early concerns that wheelchair ramps would not integrate well into our society, we now know that ubiquitous wheelchair ramps have proven a boon to all. They have even spawned an explosion of products, such as wheeled suitcases and rolling carts that utilize the omnipresent ramps. My request for an accessible Kindle is no different.

By creating accessibility with universal design in mind, Amazon can and should produce a better, more desirable product for all its consumers. Thus Amazon will be providing accessible technology, helping schools comply with the law, including all students in the benefits of the technology, and innovating beyond its competitors. Win, win, win.

I thank you for your attention to my letter. Please feel free to contact me with any questions and/or concerns. I am

Very truly yours,

Carlton Anne Cook Walker
President, National Organization of Parents of Blind Children
Attorney at Law
Teacher of Students with Blindness/Visual Impairment

No protest would be complete without a little street theater, so the Grinch who stole Christmas made an appearance, took some questions from the crowd, and in his answers conveyed the attitude all too typical of Amazon and its leadership: our product is accessible, and, if it isn't, that's too bad. You say you don’t remember The Grinch Who Stole Christmas? Let’s review the story as it was presented on the streets of Seattle.

The Grinch Who Stole E-Books
Every blind kid in school liked reading a lot,
But the Grinch who ran Amazon thought the blind weren't so hot.
The Grinch blocked access, he thought the blind were teasin’!
Now please don't ask why. No one quite knows the reason.
It could be that his head wasn't screwed on quite right.
It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight.
But I think that the most likely reason to recall,
May have been that his wallet was too fat after all.
But whatever the reason,
His shoes or his bucks,
He blocked their books, thought that the blind were just stuck.
Amazon's Grinch thought the story was done,
But the blind and their books were not to be shunned.
The blind wrote letters, made videos, sent Tweets,
And surprised the Grinch by showing up on the streets.
Yes, that Grinch Bezos had thought he knew best,
But the blind would continue to pursue access with zest.
Will our Grinch change his mind,
Or will his unfair practice put the business behind?
The blind want to read and compete with them all,
We won't let our kids be left in the hall.
To Bezos we say, “Don't you have a heart?”
To show us, equal Access to Kindle would be a good start.
We will not rest until books we have too,
The blind of the nation are here to face you.
If you insist on keeping us out,
We'll have no choice but to shout.
We will block Amazon from selling to schools,
We will not let the public be played for fools.
We are done for today, but we will not stop,
For access to reading we all want a lot.
Now is the time for access to come true,
And, Jeff Bezos, until you do,
We will not trust Kindle Books from you!

The question that must be asked after all of the letters, the press releases, the protest, the signs, and the chants is, did the press get it and communicate it to the public. National Public Radio got it. So too did the Seattle Times in an article that appeared on December 12, 2012. It said, in part:

The push to use technology in the classroom may have a downside for blind students if the technology favored in schools is one that is less accessible, as Amazon’s push to put Kindle e-books in K-12 classrooms demonstrates.

Carrying a sign that read “Equal Access in the Classroom,” former New York Governer David Paterson joined about seventy members of the National Federation of the Blind outside Amazon.com’s Seattle headquarters Wednesday to urge the company to make its Kindle e-books fully accessible to blind students. The protesters argued that, while Kindle books can be read aloud with Amazon’s text-to-speech engine, they lack key features available in other products, including Apple’s iBooks. Those features include the ability to annotate important passages and check spelling or punctuation. They also said Kindle books, unlike iBooks, cannot be read with a Braille display that connects to devices, hurting students who are both blind and deaf.

The two-hour protest came on the heels of Amazon’s recent launch of an online tool called Whispercast, which partly seeks to raise its presence in schools by enabling teachers to push Kindle books to different devices. “Disabled people are more disoriented than ever as we shift to technology that leaves them out,” said Paterson, only the second legally blind governor of any state in U.S. history.

Now that the protest is behind us, what is Amazon's reaction, and what plans do we have? Amazon no longer claims that it is working with us to make its products accessible. Officials have gone so far as to say they will no longer meet with us. No doubt this is our punishment for speaking out, but continued contact with Amazon would be meaningful only if it led to products the blind could use. Since 2007 we have offered our best technical people, have met with their engineers, and have tried to persuade their leadership. The result has been products that keep coming to the market that are of no use to the blind and an attempt by Amazon to pretend that this doesn't matter. To the libraries they go—to the grammar schools and the high schools, to the colleges and universities, and never a thought do they give to what it is like to be a blind student confronted with its technology and the demand to be productive with it. When those with whom we work have a genuine desire to make products we can use, we get behind them and lend our name to their effort. When it becomes apparent that we are being played and used, we press for change from without.

The law is on our side, and the industry has clearly demonstrated that accessibility is not only a possibility but a reality. Apple with its products that use iOS and KNFB Reading Technology with Blio have set the bar. Products using the Android operating system are striving to reach it, and so too is Barnes and Noble with its recent release of an iOS app that allows reading the books it produces for the Nook with the speech built into the Apple line of products.

It is commonly accepted that the pace of change in technology is almost overwhelming, yet with all this progress how often are we who are blind asked to wait, wait, wait? Access will come soon, they say, but soon will be far too late if we have children who don't learn to read and aren't encouraged to read because the preferred device in their schools doesn’t work nonvisually. If we let Kindle become the device on which reading is done and it is not usable by the blind, the major message education will send is that it is the role of the blind to be spectators while others take the field, get the glory, take home the memories, and go on to better things.

The hope of blind people to assume our place as normal and capable human beings rests on a good education and the opportunity to pursue the jobs it should secure. E-books can and will be a part of our education and a part of the education received by all Americans, but none of us should settle for tools that keep out those who are willing and able to learn and who are anxious to make their financial and spiritual contribution to the world. The blind will not settle for such an outcome, and neither will the sighted once they come to understand that a company’s short-term determination to dominate the market is undermining the contract the public has made with the blind: “We will rehabilitate and educate you, and in turn you will work for the benefit of us all.”

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