August 7, 2015

VIA EMAIL

Carmen Fariña
Chancellor
New York City Department of Education
52 Chambers Street
New York, NY 10007

Vanessa Leung
Panel for Educational Policy Chair
New York City Department of Education
52 Chambers Street New York, NY 10007 

Victor Calise
Commissioner
New York City Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities
100 Gold Street New York, NY 10038 

Re: Proposed Contract Between the New York City Department of Education and Amazon Digital Services, Inc.

Dear Chancellor Fariña, Ms. Leung, and Commissioner Calise:

We recently learned that the Panel for Educational Policy will be considering at its meeting on August 26, 2015, a $30 million contract between the New York City Department of Education and Amazon Digital Services, Inc. Our understanding is that, under this contract, Amazon would construct an electronic storefront for DOE and thereby become DOE’s primary distributor of electronic textbooks and related educational materials. We are extremely concerned that such an agreement will not adequately address the rights of the numerous New York City students, teachers, and parents who are blind or have other print disabilities.

Our concern is based in no small part on Amazon’s track record on accessibility. Despite repeated requests by the National Federation of the Blind and other organizations, Amazon has spent the better part of a decade producing devices, platforms, and e-books that are entirely inaccessible or minimally accessible to blind and print-disabled users who rely on text-to-speech and/or Braille output. Many of Amazon’s inaccessible offerings have found their way into the K-12 and post-secondary educational market. For example, in 2009 and 2010, the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education resolved complaints against five post-secondary schools that used Amazon’s 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 to require use of any device “unless or until such electronic book reader is fully accessible to individuals with visual impairments…”1 In 2011, the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights made clear that K-12 schools likewise must refrain from using technology like the Kindle DX that denies students with disabilities equal access.2 More recently, Amazon has signed contracts with several universities to create online storefronts through which students can purchase e-textbooks, including Kindle print replica e-textbooks that are completely inaccessible to the blind.

We are also concerned because the publicly-available documentation about the proposed contract between DOE and Amazon, including the Request for Proposal notice and the Request for Authorization, demonstrates that accessibility for the blind and print-disabled has not, to this point, been a factor considered by DOE. Indeed, the Request for Authorization3 Indicates that the DOE committee evaluating the fourteen vendor proposals to create a storefront and manage and provide e-content considered the following five criteria, with their relative weights of importance: Breadth of Catalog (30%); Prices/Discounts (30%); Program Plan (15%); Organizational Capacity (15%); and Demonstrated Effectiveness (10%). This list of criteria should also have included: Accessibility for Disabled Students and Teachers. Moreover, this same document makes clear that Amazon was chosen over the other finalist, Overdrive, largely because of Amazon’s more desirable pricing structure. While we appreciate that DOE must take budgetary concerns into account when making contracting decisions, we trust you agree with us that such cost-cutting measures should not come at the expense of students and employees with disabilities.

Given these concerns and the Panel’s impending vote on the Amazon contract in less than three weeks, we are asking to meet with you as soon as possible to discuss how this contract would meet DOE’s legal obligations under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and comparable New York state and city provisions. Please respond to Mehgan Sidhu, Esq., General Counsel to the National Federation of the Blind, at 410-659-9314 extension 2314 or [email protected], no later than Friday, August 14, 2015, to inform us if you are amenable to such a meeting.

Sincerely,

Mark A. Riccobono, President
National Federation of the Blind

MAR/ms

1 See Letter of Resolution, D.J. No. 202-61-117, Reed Coll. (Dec. 18, 2009), available at http://www.ada.gov/reed_college.htm.
2 See Letter from U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, to College and University Presidents, Frequently Asked Questions About the June 29, 2010 Dear Colleague Letter (May 26, 2011), at 3, available at http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/dcl-ebook-faq-201105.html.
3 Available at http://www.capitalnewyork.com/sites/default/files/Amazon%20Request%20for%20Authorization.pdf.