December 19, 2014

Free Library of Philadelphia Resolves NOOK Accessibility Lawsuit

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The Free Library of Philadelphia (FLP) this week settled the lawsuit filed against it in May by four blind patrons assisted by the National Federation of the Blind (NFB).

The suit was filed over a pilot program that allowed patrons older than 50 to borrow pre-loaded NOOK Simple Touch e-readers. Since these devices lacked text-to-speech capability and had been purchased with the help of federal grants, the plaintiffs contended that the program violated both Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Under the terms of the settlement, FLP has agreed to supplement its collection of more than 60 NOOKs with ten accessible devices, according to a press announcement from the NFB. Within four years, the library will transition to a collection of e-readers that are all accessible to the blind, and will begin incorporating an accessibility requirement into its technology procurement contracts. The case and the settlement were very similar to a separate lawsuit filed by NFB and the U.S. Justice Department against the Sacramento Public Library, which was resolved in August.

NFB hopes that these settlements will encourage other institutions to adopt accessibility-compliant technology policies.

“We’re trying hard. Not having equal access to information in the information age is a far bigger handicap than not being able to see,” Counsel for the NFB Daniel F. Goldstein of Brown, Goldstein, and Levy, told LJ. “And when the rest of the world can stay connected to a vast collection of ebooks for purchase that they can read 24/7 wherever they are and the blind can’t, that affects your ability to learn equally and compete equally.”

Goldstein said that the current library e-reader landscape still poses significant accessibility problems.

This is, in large part, due to vendors. Among e-readers and tablets available in the consumer marketplace, only the iPad—one of the most expensive solutions—is considered fully accessible by NFB. The NOOK and the Sony Reader are not. Amazon’s third-generation Kindle devices included text-to-speech features that could be turned on after navigating a couple of menu screens, which posed problems for blind users. But the company has dropped that feature entirely on more recent versions of its e-ink readers, including the new Paperwhite model. NFB heavily criticized the Kindle Fire when it launched in 2011 without built-in text to speech, but the latest models released last month now include that capability. NFB has not yet tested those.

According to a prepared statement issued by NFB President Dr. Marc Maurer, the settlements could also help encourage vendors to include accessibility features in future models of their e-readers.

“The library’s commitment to procure accessible technology means that vendors of e-reading technology and content will have to make their products accessible in order to sell them to the Free Library of Philadelphia,” Maurer said. “We hope that other libraries, educational institutions, and other entities with legal obligations to serve people with disabilities will emulate the approach being adopted by the Free Library of Philadelphia.  If they do, we believe that all e-book content will ultimately be accessible to the blind, giving us equal access to the printed word.”

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