Why Did They Wait for a Lawsuit to Make Kindle DX Accessible for the Blind?

Jan 27, 2010

By Kerrie Spencer, staff technology writer – January 27, 2010

It was ever thus, the Amazon Kindle gurus developed a superbly smashing device that would make ebooks easier to read. They forgot one little thing that came back to bite them later.

Ebooks are taking the marketplace by storm. There isn’t any question about that. In fact, Christmas 2009, saw enormous sales of the latest ebook reader, the Kindle. Not that Amazon was leaking any particular figures, but they did say that December 2009 was one of their best months of the year. In a recession, that’s saying something.

Other tech sources indicate the Kindle should have the capability to generate at least $310 million in 2010 and keep right on going to hit $2 billion (Yes, $2 billion) by 2012. While industry analysts may be overly enthusiastic about these figures, there is no doubt that the Kindle “will” be one of the hottest selling items for some years to come.

Amazingly, there are well over 390,000 books for the Kindle, over 100 magazines and newspapers, not to mention blogs and other tidbits like accessories. While this article isn’t about the books, there is another legal issue dealing with copyright law that we hope to touch on in another column. Writers are none to amused about the Kindle and how royalties work.

With all this “dressed for success” media attention and the public snapping up Kindles like there was no tomorrow, it came as a great shock to Amazon when charges were laid against them under the auspices of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The charges had been laid by the Department of Justice, who also announced the recent settlement as well, that involved four large American universities. At issue was the universities had been participating in the Kindle DX project to allow students to test the Kindle in a classroom setting.

Sounds good on the surface and the universities were quite pleased with the thought that they would be able to offer students a trial program using the Kindles for taking notes, using the built-in dictionary, searching the library, and carrying their books in the Kindle. What a timesaver – a major plus for the students who would get to use the device for a year.

Things were put into place for the universities to get rolling with their experimental project in partnership with Amazon. The players in this plan were Arizona State University, Case Western Reserve University, Princeton University, Reed College, Pace University, and Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia.

Things were going great guns for about a month and then the roof fell in. The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and American Council of the Blind (ACB) along with visually impaired Darrell Shandrow, an Arizona State University journalism student, filed a lawsuit against the University. The suit was alleging that the Kindles don’t allow blind students to use them, and that was a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Said Shandrow when interviewed about the case, “Sighted students have access to a new reading venue, the Kindle, but blind and visually impaired students don’t. There needs to be equal accessibility to the ebook reader as a matter of course.”

Once this lawsuit was filed, universities interested in the Kindle pilot project quickly scattered to the four winds and took up a “wait and see what the courts say” approach to the whole situation. What happened was a series of settlements between the Department of Justice and the four universities, which didn’t do any finger-pointing or discuss financial damages.

Instead, the educational facilities agreed to not buy, recommend or promote the use of the Kindle DX (or any other such reader) unless it is completely accessible to blind and visually handicapped students. The lesson learned here? Emerging technology needs to offer everyone, including those with disabilities (visual or other), the same chances as other people and students. Industry rumor has it that audio features will be offered on Kindle e-readers by the summer of 2010 and will include a “huge” font.

And the odd thing? Kindle does have the ability to convert text to speech for ebooks, but it doesn’t have controls that are activated by voice, effectively ruling this option out for blind and visually impaired people. And the burning question of the day is: “Why did they wait for a lawsuit to make Kindle DX accessible for the blind?”



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