DOJ, schools settle over Kindle's blind access

An additional three universities will refrain from using Amazon's Kindle DX in the classroom under terms of deals announced Wednesday. But the agreements extend beyond the Kindle DX to any e-reader that's not fully accessible to the blind.

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Leslie Katz
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Updated 4:50 p.m. PST with response from Amazon.

Three universities will refrain from using Amazon's Kindle DX in the classroom under terms of deals announced Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Justice.

In separate pacts, Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Pace University in New York City, and Reed College in Portland, Ore., agreed that they "will not purchase, recommend, or promote use of the Kindle DX, or any other dedicated electronic book reader, unless the devices are fully accessible to students who are blind and have low vision."

The Justice Department's civil rights division has been exploring whether Kindles and other e-readers violate the Americans with Disabilities Act. Last year, two organizations representing the blind--the National Federation of the Blind in Baltimore and the American Council of the Blind in Arlington, Va.--sued another school, Arizona State University, after it and other universities announced pilot projects to use the handheld device in classrooms.

Kindle DX

The federation has said that while it appreciates the Kindle's text-to-speech feature, 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."

Per the settlements, according to the Justice Department, the universities agree that if they do use dedicated electronic book readers, they will "ensure that students with vision disabilities are able to access and acquire the same materials and information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as sighted students with substantially equivalent ease of use."

"Advancing technology is systematically changing the way universities approach education, but we must be sure that emerging technologies offer individuals with disabilities the same opportunities as other students," Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez said in a statement. "These agreements underscore the importance of full and equal educational opportunities for everyone."

Amazon said Wednesday that it had no comment on the Justice Department deals. It did, however, point us toward a December 7, 2009, statement highlighting positive reactions from vision-impaired readers who have benefited from the device and announcing that it's working on new features--including an audible menu system--that will make the Kindle better for the visually impaired.

"With some key modifications, we believe Kindle can be a breakthrough device for the blind, and the team is excited about making these enhancements," the company said.

The deals announced Wednesday follow Monday's settlement among Arizona State University, the Justice Department, and the two advocacy organizations for the blind. Last year, ASU announced plans to give students in an honors course on the history of human culture and thought Kindle DXes with 30 required books pre-loaded.

However, following that move, the National Federation of the Blind and American Council of the Blind joined a blind ASU student in suing Arizona State, alleging that the Kindle's inaccessibility to blind students constituted a violation of federal law.

Other universities, such as Syracuse University and the University of Wisconsin at Madison, also examined the utility of the large-screened Kindle DX as a teaching device and decided they would not use it until it's accessible to blind individuals.