Some legal experts say groups advocating on behalf of blind students have a strong case with their lawsuit against Arizona State University (ASU). The suit claims using the Kindle DX in a pilot program this fall would discriminate against blind students.

ASU is being sued by the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and the American Council of the Blind (ACB) over the pilot use of Amazon’s Kindle DX eReader to distribute eTextbooks to its students, because the Kindle DX’s menu isn’t accessible to the blind. Darrell Shandrow, a blind ASU student, is also named as a plaintiff.

The device features text-to-speech technology that can read textbooks aloud to blind students, but the menus are not accessible to the blind, making it impossible for a blind user to purchase books from the Kindle store, select a book to read, or activate the text-to-speech function, NFB said in a press release.

Richard Bernstein, a disabilities attorney who says his life’s work is to ensure people with disabilities have equal rights, said ASU’s use of the Kindle DX is a serious violation of rights and needs to be rectified.

“The reason that this is so unbelievably significant, why this is so disheartening, is the blind community was so excited about this Kindle,” said Bernstein, who is blind. “The idea [was so appealing] that myself and other blind people would have the opportunity to read a newspaper on an airplane or in an airport and [have] the opportunity to do things that sighted people take advantage of every day.”

These hopes were dashed, Bernstein said, when the text-to-speech feature was deactivated.

“The [text-aloud] reading capability is in the Kindle. The Kindle has it right now. We’re not asking them to create a new technology; the technology actually exists right now in the device,” Bernstein said. “This is the future. Ultimately, everything is now going to go to an online format and the idea that people with disabilities–especially the blind–are going to categorically be left out of this process is going to devastate our entire community.”

Bernstein, who also is the chair of the board of governors at Wayne State University, said that he plans to put forth a resolution in the fall asking that no university funding be used to purchase Kindles unless or until Amazon is willing to allow the text-to-speech technology to become accessible. “All we’re doing is asking them to turn on the voice-activation switch, which they turned off,” he said.

Though harder to enforce, Bernstein said he also plans to introduce a resolution that asks faculty and students not to purchase any products from Amazon unless or until the company makes the Kindle DX more accessible.

“Unless Amazon is willing to work to make this situation better, then we’re going to fight all over the place,” he said. “You have an entire group of people that is not going to have access to this technology. If we don’t fight this, and fight this hard, and challenge this as much as we possibly can both legally and publicly, then what’s going to happen is that we’re not going to have a future.”

Virgil Renzulli, vice president of public affairs for ASU, said in a statement that ASU is committed to equal access for all students.

“The university has joined in a pilot program for the Kindle reader for a single course where students may also access traditional textbooks,” he said. “ASU serves students with disabilities through disability-resource centers located on all ASU campuses. The centers enable students to establish eligibility and obtain services and accommodations for qualified students with disabilities. These efforts are focused on providing the necessary tools so that all students with disabilities have an equal opportunity to be successful in their academic pursuits.”

But NFB President Marc Maurer said that given the highly advanced technology involved in the Kindle DX, there’s no reason that it’s not accessible to blind students.

“Six American higher education institutions that are subject to federal laws requiring that they not discriminate against students with disabilities plan to deploy this device, even though they know that it cannot be used by blind students. The NFB will not tolerate this unconscionable discrimination against and callous indifference to the right of blind students to receive an equal education,” he said.

Beth Tyner Jones, of the law firm Womble Carlyle Sandridge and Rice, said the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 established that ASU must take all steps necessary to ensure that no student with disabilities is denied any benefits or excluded from participation in any educational program or activity because of the absence of some type of auxiliary aid.

“The challenge here is that the office of civil rights in the Department of Education has always required that communication with disabled folks…[must be] as effective as it is with non-disabled,” she said.

However, Jones said that because the Kindle DX program is only a pilot and because the program also gives students access to materials in traditional form, compliance might not be a problem. She said the school does not have to provide materials to person with disabilities in the exact same way as it does to non-disabled students.

But Shandrow, the blind ASU student cited in the lawsuit, said the use of the Kindle DX will put him and other blind students at a competitive disadvantage related to their sighted peers.

“While my peers will have instant access to their course materials in electronic form, I will still have to wait weeks or months for accessible texts to be prepared for me, and these texts will not provide the access and features available to other students,” he said.

Wendy Harbour, executive director at the Taishoff Center for Inclusive Higher Education at Syracuse University, said pilot programs still need to be accessible.

“You really need to be careful, when doing a pilot, that things are accessible from the outset. But the interesting issue to me is that sometimes while you’re doing a pilot, you find access problems. So I am a little bit nervous about what will happen with this lawsuit, just from a researcher perspective. What if access problems are found during the pilot, is that then grounds for another lawsuit?” she asked.

She stresses that in her view the idea of using electronic texts in class is overdue for colleges and universities.

“I want to be clear. I think Kindle is a great idea,” she said. “But if students can’t access all of the features that make electronic texts so exciting and able to enhance students’ education, then that’s not access.”

Links:

Arizona State University’s Kindle DX Pilot Program

National Federation of the Blind

American Council of the Blind

Experts split on ‘Kindle in Every Backpack’

Cheaper eBook reader challenges Kindle

New Kindle is textbook friendly


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