Lawyer: Push forE-Reader Could Violate Blind Students’ Rights

By Megha Satyanarayana Free Press Staff Writer
September 02, 2009 20:29 PM

Efforts to bring some of the most cutting-edge technologies to Wayne State University classrooms could violate the rights of blind students, lawyer and Board of Governors Chairman Richard Bernstein said today.

At issue is’s best-selling Kindle 2 e-reader, a device that allows users to download books and documents for reading on the go. The company is working with universities nationwide to use the readers in classrooms to replace textbooks, bound notes and other learning materials.

The device has software that converts text to voice, making it possible for blind people to listen to texts. But in an agreement with book publishers and authors, who believe the text-to-voice function will eat into audiobook sales, individual authors and publishers can decide whether to allow readers to
use the text-to-voice function on the device. Otherwise, it is disabled.

Bernstein said the device, as it is now, is not accessible to the blind, and should the university decide to contract with for the devices, they would be in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“This is the new world,” Bernstein said of the technology. “This is the most important thing the disabled population has been faced with. Imagine if everyone can download everything but you.” There are 48 low-vision or blind students at Wayne State University.

The National Federation for the Blind, which is suing Arizona State University for its use of the e-reader in classes this fall, goes further, saying the device, even with the software, is nearly impossible for the blind to use, because it is not interactive and users cannot easily download and play materials.

“A blind student is not going to be able to navigate in the text book. A blind person can’t really do anything else with a Kindle,” said Chris Danielsen, NFB spokesperson.

Currently, universities have the means to take textbooks and make them accessible to blind students by scanning them into programs that work with voice recognition software, but the time it takes to scan books means many blind students go weeks without texts, or have to buy books well before their classmates with sight.

At the monthly Board of Governors meeting today, Bernstein asked the university to hold off on efforts to bring e-readers to classrooms until the text-to-voice function is fully restored. The board voted unanimously on a resolution urging to reverse its decision to disable the software.

“If a company wants to produce an inaccessible device, they have every right to do so. But if you want to work within the university community, you have to adhere to basic values and principles,” Bernstein said.

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