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Department of Ed Lays Down Law on Kindle E-Reader Usage

The United States Department of Education and Department of Justice have just issued a reminder calling for colleges and universities--as well as K-12 school districts--to make sure devices such as e-readers that are required in the classroom comply with accessibility laws. The federal action came on the heels of a settlement agreement made by Justice with five institutions that were running Amazon Kindle e-book readers as pilot programs. According to the agencies, Kindle devices aren't accessible to students who are blind or have low vision.

"If we don't consider individuals with disabilities when we integrate new technologies into the educational environment, students with disabilities can and will be left behind as their non-disabled peers gain the benefits of learning that are enhanced by technological advances. This result would be inconsistent with our civil rights laws," said Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary for civil rights for the Department of Education.

Reaffirmation of the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was delivered as a joint "Dear Colleague" letter. Both sets of regulations prohibit public and private institutions that accept federal funds from discriminating against students with disabilities and preventing them from receiving equal opportunity to "participate in and benefit from" services, programs, and activities available to others. The National Center for Education Statistics estimated about 230,000 college students who were blind, had low vision, or possessed other disabilities affecting their ability to access print information as of the 2003-2004 academic year.

"... [W]e ask that you take steps to ensure that your college or university refrains from requiring the use of any electronic book reader, or other similar technology, in a teaching or classroom environment as long as the device remains inaccessible to individuals who are blind or have low vision," the letter stated. "It is unacceptable for universities to use emerging technology without insisting that this technology be accessible to all students."

The settlement involved Arizona State University in Tempe; Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, OH; Pace University in New York; Reed College in Portland, OR; and Princeton University in New Jersey. The cases began when complaints were filed by two organizations, the National Federation of the Blind and the American Council of the Blind, on behalf of members.

All of those schools have individually entered into agreements with Justice concerning the use of the e-readers in classrooms in which they agree "generally not to purchase, recommend, or promote use of the Kindle DX, or any other dedicated electronic book reader, unless the devices are fully accessible for students who are blind or have low vision." All were participating in projects with Amazon to test the viability of the device in a classroom setting. The terms of the settlements were to go into effect after the pilot programs were finished.

At the time, the Kindle DX being used in the pilot program had a text-to-speech function for the contents of a book, but it didn't have the same functionality for the menu or navigation controls. That meant students who were blind couldn't know which book they'd selected or how to access the Kindle's browser or other functions.

According to Ali, the University of Virginia Darden School of Business is still in negotiations with Justice regarding use of the device. U Virginia's experiment with the Kindle began in August 2009. In May 2010, the school concluded in a preliminary assessment that while it was "excited" to be part of the experiment," most students preferred not to use the electronic reading device, finding it too "clunky" for the fast pace of the classroom.

Some institutions--including Syracuse University in New York and the University of Wisconsin at Madison--chose not to implement Kindle programs until the device was fully accessible to blind users.

Ali said in a press briefing that although her agency doesn't "hold jurisdiction over private companies, through media and other sources and in conversations with settlement recipients, it is our understanding that later this year [Amazon] will be coming out with a fully accessible reader."

Ali declined to state which e-readers currently available comply with the ADA requirements, saying that her agency stays out of the business of endorsing any specific products. "These devices change so rapidly, I can [imagine] any such list as becoming obsolete quickly." She added, "We'll do our best to point [people] in the direction of others that are developing clearinghouse Web sites for these emerging technologies, groups like the National Federation of the Blind."

Currently, the Federation Web site doesn't specifically address e-readers in its list of recommended consumer electronics. However, it does endorse the kReader Mobile, a product co-developed and co-marketed with inventor Ray Kurzweil.

Regarding the Apple iPad, a device that several higher ed institutions have recently announced pilot programs for, Ali said that although her agency hasn't verified its findings, it has heard through sources that "the device is, in fact, fully accessible."

Although the settlements involved higher ed institutions, the principles also apply to K-12, the Department of Education said. "In fact," said Ali, "we're offering technical assistance right now to at least one school district that has come to our attention as interested in using electronic book readers as part of their high school curriculum." Although she didn't name the district, Clearwater High School announced it would be replacing its textbooks with Kindles for 2,100 students next fall.

The Department of Education is providing "technical assistance" to schools with questions about compliance requirements by phone at 800-514-0301 and 800-514-0383 for text phone and via the Web.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

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