Future Reflections Special Issue on Advocacy
by Mehgan Sidhu and Valerie Yingling
From the Editor: As many Future Reflections readers are aware, the National Federation of the Blind works to ensure that blind students have equal access to educational materials used in the classroom. The deluge of new electronic platforms for presenting information to students has brought us an array of challenges. In this article, NFB legal counsel Mehgan Sidhu and paralegal Valerie Yingling explain how families can help make sure that books using Amazon's Whispercast program are made accessible to blind students and others with print disabilities.
Is your child's school planning to implement Whispercast? If so, the NFB wants to hear from you.
Amazon is increasingly marketing its inaccessible Kindle ebooks and Whispercast program to the public schools. As schools adopt Amazon's products and services, they create educational disadvantages for students who are blind or print-disabled, impeding their ability to engage in the assigned curriculum. This practice is discriminatory and illegal, and it poses significant harm to the education of blind children.
In October 2012, Amazon announced the release of Whispercast, a free online program designed to streamline the process of purchasing and distributing Kindle content in schools and workplaces. Whispercast allows teachers to distribute Kindle content wirelessly to students' ereading devices while monitoring and managing their device settings, including Internet access and website filters. The content can be distributed en masse to an entire classroom or grade level, or it can be distributed individually for differentiated instruction.
The use of Whispercast is not limited to Kindle devices. Amazon advertises the program as highly compatible with Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) programs. Free Kindle apps are available for personal computers, Apple and Android smartphones and tablets, and other devices. As schools prepare for the 2013-2014 school year by assessing student needs and available funding levels, school administrators may understandably believe that implementing Whispercast through a BYOD program is a solution for budget shortfalls.
Amazon is aggressively marketing its products to schools. The company is promoting the millions of books and other materials it offers as ways for students to access the Core Curriculum and to become enthusiastic about reading. Amazon advertises the Kindle's interactive dictionary and encyclopedia, as well as its highlighting, note-taking, and bookmarking features, as ways for students to engage with their texts to bolster comprehension. We anticipate that in response to Amazon's marketing and the increasing pressure schools face to shift to digital materials for their cost savings and other benefits, we may see many schools adopting Kindle ebooks and Whispercast in the upcoming school year.
Emerging technology can be a wonderful thing, but only when it is accessible. Unfortunately, Amazon's Kindle e-books are inaccessible in critical respects to individuals who are blind. 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 ebooks, leaves blind students woefully behind their sighted classmates. When reading Kindle ebooks on these platforms, for example, blind students cannot navigate through text character by character or word by word. The lack of these features greatly interferes with students' ability to learn and generalize phonetic awareness, grammar, and sentence structure. Students who are blind cannot access Kindle's touted interactive features, including the built-in dictionary, encyclopedia, and the highlighting and note-taking features. Thereby they are hindered in their ability to comprehend texts and assignments. When using Kindle ebooks, blind students cannot navigate the table of contents, locate specific text, or bookmark passages, increasing the possibility that they will not be able to complete in-class assignments or follow a teacher's lectures. In addition, Kindle ebooks are not compatible with refreshable Braille displays. All of these features, in contrast, are available on Blio and iBooks, and are fully accessible to blind students.
When schools implement inaccessible technology such as Whispercast, their actions constitute discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504). Public entities such as schools cannot deny individuals with disabilities the benefits of services and programs granted to those without disabilities. Furthermore, schools that receive federal funds cannot deliver to individuals with disabilities any benefits or services that are inferior to those provided to students without disabilities. The U.S. Departments of Justice and Education have made clear that when schools adopt inaccessible ebook technology they are violating federal law. They have mandated that schools refrain from implementing emerging technology that is not accessible to students who are blind or print disabled.
For years the NFB has been a strong advocate for fully and equally accessible ebooks, including Amazon's Kindle ebooks and devices. In December 2012 the NFB sponsored a letter-writing campaign, requesting that parents and children write to Amazon's founder and CEO, Jeffrey Bezos, describing the impact that inaccessible Kindle content has had on their educational experience. The NFB's campaign culminated in a protest at Amazon headquarters in Seattle, Washington. Federationists delivered the letters to Amazon staff members and publicly protested Amazon's insufficient response to the requests of blind students and blind consumers for accessibility.
Advocacy efforts continued in March 2013, when NFB President Marc Maurer wrote to the Departments of Education in all fifty states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia to advise them that the implementation of Whispercast in their schools puts blind students at a significant disadvantage and constitutes discrimination under the ADA and Section 504. Dr. Maurer also wrote to the National PTA in response to its announcement of Amazon as sole sponsor of the National PTA's Family Reading Experience program. His letter explained that by partnering with Amazon to distribute Kindle devices and ebooks to low-income and at-risk schools, the National PTA not only assists schools in violating federal law, but also excludes blind students from fully participating in and benefiting from the Common Core state standards it stalwartly promotes.
Our work, however, is not over. Amazon continues to market Whispercast and Kindle ebooks to schools. Currently the NFB is tracking school systems that have chosen to implement or are considering the implementation of Whispercast or of Kindle ebooks. As parents and educators of blind children, your assistance and advocacy will be invaluable to ensure that blind children have equal access to ebooks at school.
If you would like to take action, here are some suggestions:
For more information about the inaccessibility of Kindle ebooks and Whispercast, please visit <https://nfb.org/Kindle-books>.