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Could book industry shortsightedness be to blame for hampering e-book access to blind students?

By Tiffany Arnold

It was recently reported that New York City school officials postponed a $30 million student e-book deal with Amazon due to concerns that its e-books aren’t fully accessible to blind students, adding to the growing list of shortcomings and challenges the industry faces when trying to define—and police—rights management in the digital age.

It’s also an indication that the industry could be doing more to make e-book technology accessible to everyone.

The New York Daily News reports that the city’s school board was set to vote on this e-book deal back in August, but the board held off after Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind (NFB) threatened to protest the deal.  The organization’s chief complaint was that Amazon’s e-books aren’t fully accessible to students who are visually impaired.

This was something I never considered to be possible, considering the proliferation of audio books.

Our recent in-class discussion about book production touched on some of the issues those seeking to produce physical textbooks face when catering to blind students, and why e-books aren’t always the easy solution. But reading more about this actually angered me a bit. It made me realize how much I take for granted every time I read books on a digital device.

In researching for this post, I came across a Wired article published last year. This passage struck a particular nerve:

“For more than a decade, the visually-impaired have been locked in an excruciatingly slow and circuitous battle against US copyright laws. And it’s left the visually-impaired with few options but to hack their way around digital barriers—just for the simple pleasure of reading a book.”

My initial thinking was why is this even a thing? Why would anyone oppose making e-books accessible to blind people.

The truth is these people really do exists.

It seems some of the recent rancor stems from what happened back in 2009, when Amazon released a newer version of its Kindle device that came with an “experimental” text-to-speech feature. Not everybody liked this feature — which I found surprising.

“They don’t have the right to read a book out loud,” Paul Aiken, then the executive director of the Authors Guild, said of Amazon’s use of the feature in a Wall Street Journal article published shortly after the device’s release. “That’s an audio right, which is derivative under copyright law.” (See: New Kindle Audio Feature Causes a Stir)

Marc Maurer, who was president of the NFB at the time, refuted the claim that such technology infringed on copyright laws and said the Authors Guild’s stance was “harmful to blind people” in a statement released that same year.

Meanwhile, text-to-speech functionality eventually devolved and is now a mixed bag. Blind users often seek apps as go-betweens, but they still may not be getting all the features.

Ever since, the NFB has filed lawsuits against educational institutions that attempt to deploy Amazon devices as a means of distributing textbooks in e-book formats, arguing as they did in the latest NYC case, that such books aren’t fully accessible to those who are blind.

Talk about something that is broken.

The Accessible Technology Coalition, as with a few other organizations, offers a primer tech-accessible devices for the visually impaired at its website, A volley of letters between the NFB and the New York City public school board suggest that school officials are open to working together to find ways to make e-books accessible for all its students. (The correspondences have been posted on the NFB’s website; here’s a link to one of the more recent letters)

But it seems it shouldn’t have to be this way. It makes me wonder whether there’s some sort of law that could compel e-book formats to be made accessible. It just seems like something needs to change.


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I am a multimedia journalist in Washington, D.C. I maintain personal blogs here at WordPress, so if you like what you read tell me so—it just might encourage me to post more often! I also am a contributor to an academic blog tied to a graduate course on publishing at The George Washington University.

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