From the Editor: One of the major tasks undertaken by the president of the National Federation of the Blind is managing the hundreds of letters and emails that arrive each month and that must be appropriately directed or responded to personally. Sometimes these letters are routine acknowledgements, sometimes letters of appreciation, and sometimes letters clearly articulating NFB policy. The letter reproduced below definitely falls into the latter category, uses compelling language to argue for accessibility, and begins to answer the question frequently asked following our protest at Amazon headquarters: “What’s next?”
Marc Maurer, President
National Federation of the Blind
Sent via first class mail and email
March 11, 2013
Betsy Landers, President
Eric Hargis, Executive Director
National Parent Teacher Association
RE: Amazon’s Sponsorship of the National PTA’s Family Reading Experience Program
Dear Ms. Landers and Mr. Hargis:
It has come to my attention that your organization has selected Amazon as the exclusive sponsor of your new Family Reading Experience program. While the aspirations of this program are noble, you should know that the use of Kindle e-books will seriously compromise the education of children who are blind or have other print disabilities. This is so because, unlike other e-books, Kindle e-books do not afford children with print disabilities the same reading and learning experience as their fellow students. As a result local PTAs that accept donations of Kindle devices or encourage the use of Kindle e-books in their schools will, as detailed in this letter, be helping to put those schools in violation of federal law.
In today’s world equal opportunity requires equal access to information. Unlike print, digital information is not inherently visual; it can be made available visually, aurally, and tactilely all at the same time and from the same original digital source. Thus digital information can be the great equalizer, offering mainstream access to all, without regard to whether the reader has a sensory disability. For decades the blind have used a variety of technologies to make e-books accessible. To read electronic texts, blind students use either text-to-speech software that vocalizes the words, letters, and characters on a page or a refreshable Braille display that renders the words, letters, and characters into Braille. Fortunately a number of technology developers and content providers have designed their products and services to put sighted and blind users on an equal footing. With the advent of commercial e-books some developers, including Apple iBooks and Blio books, have made their e-books and reading applications accessible so that everyone, including blind students and others with print disabilities, can read and use them effectively.
Unfortunately Amazon is not such a company. It has made a conscious decision to exclude the blind from reading and studying with its Kindle e-books. Among other barriers blind students using Kindle e-books cannot (1) read character by character and thus learn to spell, punctuate, and distinguish homophones; (2) navigate usefully through the text of a Kindle e-book to keep up with the rest of the class; (3) interact with the Kindle e-book’s content through the dictionary, highlighting, search, or note-taking features; or (4) access any content in Braille through their refreshable Braille displays. In sum, blind students attempting to use Kindle e-books are effectively precluded from developing phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary, which are the stated goals of your Family Reading Experience program.
To illustrate the barriers Kindle e-books create, I have attached a chart to this letter showing the various functions that Kindle e-books offer sighted students and deny blind students. The chart reflects the best access Amazon offers, using a Kindle Keyboard (also called Kindle 3G) or using the Kindle for PC with Accessibility Plugin to read Kindle e-books. All other devices and platforms for reading Kindles are completely inaccessible. By way of comparison, the attached chart also shows other reading platforms, such as iBooks, that offer blind students all of the functions that Amazon reserves for the sighted. For your convenience we have also tied those features to the Common Core State Standards to demonstrate specifically how the access barriers of Kindle e-books inhibit blind students’ educational opportunities. [Editor’s note: The chart discussed previously was reproduced in full in the February 2013 issue of the Monitor.] In short, although blind readers do have some rudimentary access to Kindle e-books when using platforms that permit that rudimentary access, it is not nearly enough [access] to use the books for anything but the most casual reading, much less the intense, challenging reading that characterizes the academic environment.
Hence the implementation of Kindle e-books proposed by the Family Reading Experience program will relegate students with print disabilities to second-class status and unnecessarily exclude them from benefiting from the program’s goals and objectives.
Moreover, the limitations of Kindle e-books will inhibit print-disabled children from developing those grade-appropriate reading skills that are set forth by the Common Core State Standards and that are vigorously advocated by your organization.
Not only does the use of Kindle e-books in the public school classroom inhibit the educational development of print-disabled students, it is also a violation of federal law. This is so because use of Kindle e-books discriminates against students with print disabilities by denying them equal access to educational programs.
Under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, public schools must not deny students with disabilities the benefits of their programs and activities. Therefore public schools that choose to use Kindle e-books will be violating federal law, and PTA organizations that encourage the use of Kindle e-books in their local schools will be assisting those schools in that violation.
In 2009 and 2010, the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education resolved complaints against five postsecondary schools that used the inaccessible Kindle DX e-reader device in their classrooms with agreements that required these schools not to purchase any e-reader device for their classrooms or require use of any device unless or until such electronic book reader is fully accessible to individuals with visual impairments. An electronic book reader is fully accessible only if all uses of the device that are available to individuals without disabilities are available to individuals with visual impairments in a manner which ensures that its use in the university setting is equally effective for individuals with visual impairments as it is for others. In 2010 the Departments of Justice and Education jointly issued a letter to the postsecondary educational community, explaining that, when it comes to e-book readers and e-book content, equal access is the law. In 2011 the Department of Education again made clear that elementary and secondary schools likewise must refrain from using technology that will deny students with disabilities equal access.
If we can further assist you in understanding which e-books and e-book platforms are accessible and compliant with federal and state law, or provide further information about the deficiencies of Kindle e-books, please do not hesitate to contact us. The National Federation of the Blind, whose 50,000 members comprise not only blind people of all ages and backgrounds but also parents of blind children and others who support equal opportunity for blind Americans, has as its ultimate goal the complete integration of the blind into society on an equal basis with our sighted peers. We are fortunate to live in an age in which that ideal has been written into law.
Amazon’s deliberate choice to scorn that ideal and ignore the needs of blind readers does not give public schools a free pass to discriminate on the basis of disability by purchasing and using Kindle e-books in their classrooms. Nor should your organization be party to such discrimination. Your position statements emphasize the special needs of underserved populations including children with disabilities, and you have assumed the role of being a powerful voice for all children. We look forward to your cooperation in this matter and are confident you will raise your powerful voice in support of the rights of our nation’s blind and print-disabled students.
Marc Maurer, President