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Inaccessible E-Readers May Run Afoul of the Law, Feds Warn Colleges

Feds to colleges: If you require students to use electronic-book readers that blind people can’t access, you may be running afoul of the law.

That was the message of a letter released to college presidents Tuesday by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice.

“It is unacceptable for universities to use emerging technology without insisting that this technology be accessible to all students,” the letter warns.

The move comes after two national organizations representing the blind sued Arizona State University over its use of the Kindle. The groups had also asked the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division to investigate whether e-book practices at several universities violated the rights of blind students under the Americans With Disabilities Act. In January, a series of agreements were announced in which universities pledged not to use Amazon’s Kindle or any similar devices “unless the devices are fully accessible to students who are blind and have low vision.”

Of the e-readers produced by four companies—Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Sony, and Apple—only Apple’s iPad can be used by blind people, said Chris Danielsen, a spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind.

Amazon had pledged to fix the Kindle’s accessibility. The company still has not delivered on that promise, Mr. Danielsen said. The device has a read-aloud feature that converts text to speech. But it lacks an accessible interface that would let blind people find books and start reading them, he said.

“So it’s not really actually helpful to a blind person,” he said of the text-to-speech feature.

The iPad, by contrast, has technology that can talk a blind person through whatever screen icons their fingers are touching, Mr. Danielsen said. Since the device’s debut, several colleges have announced formal campus iPad initiatives.

Mr. Danielsen said he hopes the government’s letter will prompt universities to tell the e-reader vendors that approach them that they can’t legally use the devices unless they’re equally accessible to blind students.

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