Feds offer more guidance on eReader accessibility in college

Arizona State University was among the schools that violated federal rules for eReader use.

Federal rules for how eReaders can legally be used by colleges and universities were clarified by the U.S. Education Department (ED) May 26 after advocates for blind and low-vision students criticized eReader pilot programs on several campuses in 2010.

ED’s latest list of guidelines, published online in a “frequently asked questions” format, reiterate that students who are blind “must be afforded the opportunity to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as sighted students” when campus officials launch initiatives that put eReaders in students’ hands.

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“Because technology is evolving, it has the capability to enhance the academic experience for everyone, especially students with disabilities,” the ED document said. “Innovation and equal access can go hand in hand.”

ED officials released a “dear colleague” letter in June 2010 after more than a year of complaints from low-sighted and blind students attending colleges that have piloted eReader programs.

The latest release says that rules outlined in the “dear colleague” letter also apply to elementary and secondary schools.

Colleges can provide books on tape, for example, for disabled students who can’t access emerging technologies like eReaders, which can have larger font for students with low vision.

The ED guidelines say that “the alternative media must provide access to the benefits of technology in an equally effective and equally integrated manner.”

Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) – a vocal critic of eReader programs that didn’t provide alternatives for blind students – said enforcing the government’s civil rights statutes is essential to blind students’ higher education.

“If blind students are to succeed in the 21st century, they must have access to the same technologies as their sighted peers,” Miller said in a statement. “These comprehensive answers to commonly asked questions about the legal obligation to purchase and deploy accessible technology should be immensely helpful to school administrators. “

NFB members, even after national attention to the issue of eReaders and blind and low-vision students, would remain vigilant of campuses that violate federal law when instituting an eReader program.

“We will continue our efforts to hold accountable those institutions that ignore their legal obligations to their blind students,” he said.

Criticism of eReaders in higher education began in 2009 when colleges and universities introduced eReader pilot programs using the Amazon Kindle and Kind DX. Schools that used the popular eReaders included Pace University, Princeton University, Case Western University, and the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.

Arizona State University ended its Kindle pilot last spring after the NFB and the American Council of the Blind filed a discrimination lawsuit.

The settlement did not involve payment, but ASU pledged that it would “strive to use devices that are accessible to the blind” in future eReader programs, according to a university statement.

Russlyn Ali, assistant secretary for civil rights at the Education Department (ED), said last year that ED officials would watch for eReader programs cropping up in K-12 schools and higher-education institutions.

Technical assistance will be provided on a “case-by-case basis,” she said, and the government will be “responsive” to any IT decision makers bringing eReaders to their school or campus.

Ali said the government would not provide colleges and universities with a list of acceptable eReader devices.

“I can imagine a list becoming obsolete very quickly,” said Ali, who added that federal officials have not received any complaints about the Apple iPad. “While these devices are changing, the principles and the laws do not.”