When I saw the news about the lawsuit filed at Arizona State University concerning Kindle accessibility issues, I think I had a quick negative reaction to the upshot of the suit, that providing Kindles to sighted students creates a disadvantage for blind students. A journalism major at ASU, a plaintiff in the suit, sums up the argument:
“Not having access to the advanced reading features of the Kindle DX—including the ability to download books and course materials, add my own bookmarks and notes, and look up supplemental information instantly on the Internet when I encounter it in my reading—will lock me out of this new technology and put me and other blind students at a competitive disadvantage relative to our sighted peers.“
My reaction was, wait a minute, how can we expect every new innovation leap fully formed from the mind of its inventor and accommodate the needs of every user on its first outing? I can think of a lot of gadgets brought to market in the last decade that were not readily usable by everyone in the population. In fact, the new Kindle sports a helpful feature, onboard text-to-speech functionality, that seems to be right up the alley of those who have trouble reading the print for themselves. Making an ereader device that offers many advantages to blind as well as sighted students appears to be a step forward, rather than “unconscionable discrimination against and callous indifference to the right of blind students to receive an equal education,” as claimed by Dr. Marc Maurer, President of the National Federation of the Blind, one of the plaintiffs in the suit.
Then, as I thought about this a bit more, I began to be persuaded by the merits of the suit.
This same Dr. Maurer, in a more reasoned and less inflamatory section of his statement, makes a lot of sense when he says:
“Given the highly-advanced technology involved, there is no good reason that Amazon’s Kindle DX device should be inaccessible to blind students. Amazon could have used the same text-to-speech technology that reads e-books on the device aloud to make its menus accessible to the blind, but it chose not to do so.“
You know, the guy has a point. Is it possible that Amazon didn’t see this coming? Any school administrator worth his or her salt would have noticed that the very feature of the Kindle that addresses the needs of the blind highlights the limitations of the device.
Welcome to the world of publicly funded education and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, wizards of business!
But this is the kind of thing that Amazon, with its laser focus on the consumer experience, isn’t really thinking about as it proposes the Kindle as an academic device. The company has already redesigned the keypad almost out of existence, and seems not to have considered that its commitment to pdf handling bypasses the value of its text-to-speech technology altogether, meaning that neither the sighted nor the blind will be able to have a textbook in pdf format read to them on the Kindle.
So, I am forced to side with the plaintiffs in this case. Amazon and its partners (the universities themselves) should have seen this coming. As one commenter on this situation observed, retrofitting the bathrooms in your building to accommodate folks in wheelchairs doesn’t really cut it if you don’t build a ramp to ensure that they can get into the building.