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The DOJ and ADA Mandate Ebook Readers Be Accessible to All
Posted On January 25, 2010
Ebook reader makers received a major reality check earlier this month when, after investigating charges of Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) violations, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced settlements with four major universities that had been part of the Kindle DX project to test the devices in real-life classroom settings.


At the fall 2007 Educause conference, Amazon met with college officials, winning their support for the developing ebook reader and agreements to participate in a pilot project using Amazon ebook readers on their campuses. In May 2009, when Amazon released its Kindle DX, officials from Arizona State University (ASU), Case Western Reserve University, Princeton University, Reed College, Pace University, and Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia all participated.

The schools all announced "some type of trial program for their schools in which students will be given some type of discounted or free Kindles to ‘take notes and highlight, search across their library, look up words in a built-in dictionary, and carry all of their books in a lightweight device.'" (See ASU, for example, intended a yearlong experiment for students in an honors history class using the Kindle DX (;txt).

Just a month after product launch, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and American Council of the Blind (ACB)-the two major U.S. organizations that support and advocate in the interests of the blind and visually impaired-along with Darrell Shandrow, an ASU journalism student who is visually handicapped, filed a lawsuit against ASU charging that the Kindle's inability to be accessible to blind students constituted a violation of ADA provisions.

"[Amazon is] saying we're giving sighted students a new avenue for reading but we're not granting the same facility to blind and visually impaired students," Shandrow said at the time. "I feel the need for equal accessibility, that is to have an accessible Kindle reading device and accessible books, is a civil right. We want the pilot program, we just want it to be accessible."

Academe Curbs Its Enthusiasm

Most educational organizations, well versed in the implications of ADA compliance and copyright issues, have chosen to avoid controversy by taking a more neutral stance. Brigham Young University suspended its Kindle-lending program in June 2009 due to legal concerns. Rogen Layton, BYU library spokesman, said at the time that "being a library, we will follow the rules and, until the rules are clear, we will wait."

In November, responding to increasing public pressure, the University of Wisconsin-Madison library system announced its decision not to support any brand of ebook readers due to their lack of ADA compliance. UW-Madison library director, Ken Frazier, released a statement noting that "advancements in text-to-speech technology have created a market opportunity for an e-book reading device that is fully accessible for everyone. This version of the Kindle e-book reader missed the mark" ( Similarly, Syracuse University library's plans to test a pilot program were also dropped.

Full and Equal Educational Opportunities for Everyone

The settlements between DOJ and the four universities involve no explicit findings of wrongdoing or monetary damages. The universities have agreed not to purchase, recommend, or promote use of the Kindle DX, or any other dedicated electronic book reader, unless or until those devices are fully accessible to blind and visually handicapped students.

DOJ made it clear that these settlements were not targeted to Amazon, but at the growing ebook reader industry: "Advancing technology is systematically changing the way universities approach education," assistant attorney general Thomas Perez noted in the DOJ's press release. "[W]e must be sure that emerging technologies offer individuals with disabilities the same opportunities as other students" (

In reacting to the DOJ decision, NFB president, Marc Maurer, noted that the settlement "will help to ensure that new technologies create new opportunities for blind students rather than new barriers." ACB president, Mitch Pomerantz similarly praised the intervention of DOJ in this case, saying that the settlement "will encourage the industry to develop fully accessible e-book readers in the near future."

On Dec. 9, perhaps anticipating DOJ action, Amazon announced that audio menu features would be available on Kindle e-readers by summer 2010. Amazon's press release at the time noted that Kindle "has enabled many vision-impaired readers to enjoy books more easily than before, and has also helped dyslexic readers and those with learning disabilities improve their reading skills. ... To make Kindle more useful for the blind, the Kindle team is currently working on an audible menuing system so blind and vision-impaired readers can easily navigate to books unassisted. ... In addition, a new super size font will be added to Kindle, increasing the number of font sizes from six to seven. This seventh font size will be twice the height and width of the current largest font" (

Amazon Opens Kindle to Further Development

Kindle, in fact, already has a text-to-speech feature that provides audio renditions of ebooks; however, it has no voice-activated controls that would help a blind person navigate the device. NFB noted that the "menus of the device are not accessible to the blind ... making it impossible for a blind user to purchase books from Amazon's Kindle store, select a book to read, activate the text-to-speech feature, and use the advanced reading functions available on the Kindle DX."

At product launch last spring, many publishers protested the text-to-speech feature, believing it would be detrimental to their audio book sales-further cannibalizing their profits in a difficult economy. In response, Amazon disabled the feature.

Last week's announcement by Amazon that it will also open the Kindle for third-party product development is another good sign of change-broadening the base of applications by opening "programming interfaces, tools and documentation to build active content for Kindle" (

Amazon: Not the Only Player to Watch

With many expecting a tablet announcement from Apple at its Jan. 27 press conference, and the recent release of Ray Kurzweil's Blio (, the future for moving text from printed page to a digital medium appears very bright.

In June 2009, market research firm In-Stat projected that worldwide shipments of e-readers are expected to grow from almost 1 million units in 2008 to close to 30 million units in 2013 ( A month later, an In-Stat survey of more than 1,500 "high end" consumers found that only 5.8% owned an ebook reader, and a mere 11% of those questioned said they planned to buy one in the next year (

In September 2009, Forrester released a study that found significant price sensitivity. Based on surveys of more than 4,700 U.S. consumers, Forrester found that fewer than 20% would buy an ebook reader priced between $99 and $148, and only 14% would buy one in the $149-$198 range. More recently, Forrester estimated that 3 million ebook readers had been sold in 2009, estimating that 2010 sales could top 10 million units. All this seems to prove that even forecasters are uncertain about the future role for ebook reader devices.

Ebooks have become common, accepted products. Libraries and other institutions are already making tens of thousands of current, copyrighted books available through vendors such as and well as through contracts with major publishers such as Wiley, Springer, Sage, and Gale, a part of Cengage Learning. Access to out-of-copyright works and book search features of Google Books are standard fare over the internet.

Textbooks appear to be the next big market. A new California state law is requiring that all textbooks in all postsecondary institutions be made available in ebook formats "to the extent practicable ... in whole or in part" by 2020. CourseSmart (, a company that sells online versions of textbooks from leading textbook publishers, recently announced that its 2009 sales increased 400% over 2008. The vendor currently has more than 6,000 college texts available and offers a software platform that allows for sophisticated "search capabilities, highlighting, note taking features, and more."

As the ebook reader market begins to enter larger, mainstream marketplaces-especially education-manufacturers appear to be experiencing some bumps in the road, dealing not only with consumer tastes but with legal requirements that proliferate in many market niches. The legal challenge to Kindle, based on ADA requirements, is something Amazon should have seen coming long ago. The company's decisions to reinstate Kindle's text-to-speech feature and open the platform up to independent developers are good steps forward. The question for Amazon is whether these actions will prove to be enough to stave off a challenge from Apple as well as the ongoing dominance of computer-based ebook developments.

Nancy K. Herther is a research consultant and writer who recently retired from a 30-year career in academic libraries.

Email Nancy K. Herther

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