In our rush to embrace iPads, Kindles, and other revolutionary electronic book readers, it’s easy to forget that these devices can seem anything but revolutionary to those who can’t see well enough to discern what’s on their screens. But, the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education haven’t forgotten the exclusions that e-readers can cause when they are used as learning tools in classrooms where sight-impaired students are striving to keep up.
Yesterday, the agencies jointly issued a “Dear Colleague letter” reminding colleges and universities that they violate federal law by requiring the use of electronic book readers that are not accessible to students who are blind or have low vision. Such use, says the letter, is discrimination prohibited by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) unless the devices can be modified in ways that enable sight-impaired people to derive the same benefits from e-readers that those with normal vision enjoy. The prohibition applies to both public and private colleges and universities.
The principal difficulty, the letter goes on to say, is that some e-readers lack features that would make them “accessible” as per the requirements of the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act. For example, in the Justice Department’s view, an e-reader without a text-to-speech equivalent of touchscreen menu and navigation controls would be all but useless to a blind user in a classroom.
Last year, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and the American Council of the Blind (ACB) lodged complaints on this basis against four universities that had adopted the Kindle DX as part of a pilot study with Amazon.com. In January, the four schools—Arizona State University, Case Western Reserve University, Pace University, and Reed College—agreed not to purchase, recommend, or promote e-book readers unless the devices are fully accessible for students who are blind or have low vision. Princeton University made a similar commitment in March. (More information about the settlements is available here.)
The letter asks the college and university presidents who have received it to refrain from requiring the classroom use of any e-book reader that can’t be accessed by the blind or those with low vision. But in it, the issuing agencies also profess to be friends of e-readers despite their propensity to violate federal law.
“Technology is the hallmark of the future, and technological competency is essential to preparing all students for future success,” the letter says. “Emerging technologies are an educational resource that enhances learning for everyone, and perhaps especially for students with disabilities.
“With technological advances, procuring electronic book readers that are accessible should be neither costly nor difficult.”