By Will Rourk
In 2009, the National Federation for the Blind (NFB) and the American Council of the Blind (ACB) filed a discrimination suit against Arizona State University, alleging that the school violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Kindle DX that students were required to use in a pilot program left at least one of them, Darrell Shandrow, unable to access all of the same features as his classmates. Shandrow is blind and while the Kindle had Text-to-Speech (TTS), it could not—at the time—allow him to navigate its menus.
Arizona State University settled with the NFB and the ACB in January and admitted that the Kindle might not have been the best solution for a pilot program. But, the debate about accessibility continues in schools across the country. Many of them, from grade schools to universities, are experimenting with E-reader technologies to reduce the number of books that students have to carry. In doing so, some have run into trouble when the technology hasn’t quite caught up to itself in being all things to all people.
Blogs that advocate for assistive technologies such as Access Tech News or Abled Body have shaped requirements that would make E-readers more accessible devices for the seeing-, hearing-, and reading-impaired. Closed-caption content, white-on-black and high-contrast reverse video screen displays, VoiceOver (a screen reader function that lets you know which icon your finger is hovering over) are notable. All of these features are available on Apple’s new iPad and, outside of the iPad, TTS is an optionon most other devices, like Amazon’s Kindle or Barnes and Noble’s Nook.
At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) a pastiche of electronic books (Ebooks) displayed more gadgetry than we’ve seen since E-reader technologies took off a few years ago. Technology news blogs herald these devices for their portability, which make it easier and easier to carry around multiple books in a compact way. Still, they amount to nothing more than techno-dazzle as we are forced to choose between proprietary formats while under constant bombardment by hoards of new devices that promise to make our lives evermore entertaining. Being a reader has never been more complicated.
For the most part, the appeal of E-readers is directed at those of us who have command of our facilities: unimpaired sight, hearing, and comprehension. Sensory-impaired and learning-disabled individuals can find these E-readers restrictive and their content unattainable.
What happens when the paragon of usefulness becomes downright unusable?
Of course, E-readers in the marketplace will continue to evolve by virtue of the market, itself. But, when E-readers are given to students—in Arizona or anywhere—they must meet a level of accessibility that satisfies everyone. Nine months after the ASU settlement, accessibility among E-readers continues to evolve. But, an air-tight case for their utility, in terms of possessing universal accessibility, has yet to be made.
Will Rourk is a digital media specialist in the University of Virginia Library System’s Digital Medial Lab.