Universities reject Kindle over inaccessibility for the blind

Syracuse University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison say they won't use Amazon's e-reader in their classrooms until it's more accessible to blind students.

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Don Reisinger
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The National Federation of the Blind is applauding the decisions of Syracuse University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison not to Amazon.com's Kindle DX as a textbook replacement.

Kindle DX
Kindle DX Amazon

The universities cited the Kindle's inaccessibility to the blind as the problem.

The federation said Wednesday 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."

For its part, Amazon believes in the Kindle's potential. An Amazon spokesperson wrote in an e-mail that "With a few modifications, Kindle has the potential to be a true breakthrough product for the blind, and we're already working on it. We're excited about it."

According to the federation, the University of Wisconsin-Madison experimented with the Kindle in upper-level history classes.

"The big disappointment was learning that the Kindle DX is not accessible to the blind," Ken Frazier, the University of Wisconsin-Madison director of libraries, said in a statement. "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."

Frazier added that a suitable device would include better "accessibility, higher-quality graphics, and improved navigation and note-taking. I think that there will be a huge payoff for the company that creates a truly universal e-book reader."

Pamela McLaughlin, director of communications and external relations at Syracuse University, said in a statement that her school bought two Kindle DX units to see if it could replace hardcover textbooks and course materials.

Although students are still evaluating the devices, she said, the university has "no plans to purchase any more of these units in light of the fact that they are inaccessible to blind students. If Syracuse University decides to use e-book technology on campus, we will require technology that can be used by all of our students, including those who are blind."

Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind, said his organization commends the universities' rejections of "broad deployment of the Kindle DX in its current form because it cannot be used by blind students and therefore denies the blind equal access to electronic textbooks."

Mauer pointed out that the federation does not oppose electronic textbooks and believes that "they hold great promise for blind students if they are accessible."

Updated at 10:14 a.m. PST to include Amazon comments.