June 20, 2024

National Federation of the Blind to Take Protest to Amazon, Denouncing School Kindle Use as Discriminatory to Blind Students

For years, representatives from the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) have been urging Amazon representatives to make their Kindle ereaders accessible to people who are blind and have low vision. Frustrated by what they say is an unacceptable response by Amazon and galvanized by the retail giant’s push for Kindle ebooks adoption by schools, NFB officials will protest outside Amazon’s Seattle headquarters on December 12 at 11:00 am.

At issue is the fact that while blind students can listen to Kindle content with the devices’ text-to-speech technology, Kindles don’t enable them to perform research functions on their own while reading, like checking spelling and punctuation, highlighting passages, and finding things in the dictionary, all of which are available to sighted students using Kindles, says NFB spokesperson Chris Danielsen.

“Amazon has repeatedly demonstrated utter indifference to the recommendations of blind Americans for full accessibility of its Kindle ebooks and failed to follow the best practices of other e-book providers,” NFB president Marc Maurer said in a statement released to press and posted on the NFB site. “Blind Americans will not tolerate this behavior any longer. While we urge Amazon to correct the many obvious deficiencies in its implementation of accessibility and remain willing to work with the company to help it do so, we will oppose the integration of these products into America’s classrooms until Amazon addresses these deficiencies. Putting inaccessible technology in the classroom not only discriminates against blind students and segregates them from their peers, but also violates the law.”

Amazon makes Kindle content available only to its own proprietary text-to-speech engine, which does not include basic technology for blind readers available elsewhere, according to Danielsen.

While the Kindle Keyboard 3G provides voice guides, allowing blind people to access their menus, that’s not enough, according to Danielsen. “It doesn’t necessarily give you access to all the options,” he says, even though this is a slight improvement over earlier Kindle models, which required a sighted person to activate text-to-speech functions that blind readers could use, he says.

Currently, “If you want to read a book straight from beginning to end, then using the Kindle’s text-to-speech will work for you,” says Danielsen. “But that’s not how you read in school. How you read in school, particularly with a textbook, is that the teacher says, ‘look at page so-and-so.’  A blind person has no way of controlling that with the Kindle ebooks, though sighted students do.”

Other ereader devices, including Apple products, provide tools that blind students can use for these functions, according to Danielsen. As schools race to select ereader models for classroom use, “We do not accept the idea that you let some students use Kindle ebook and you let a blind student use something else,” Danielsen explained. “That is segregating the blind students, using a ‘separate but equal’ philosophy that we don’t accept.”

Amazon did not respond to a call and email request for comment from SLJ.

Danielsen says that blind people generally use screen-reading software like Jaws for Windows and Window-Eyes that “take any document on a computer—an email or word document, read it to a blind person, and allow a blind person to control how it’s read,” he explained. “If you’re advancing through a document you can stop at a word by pushing the keyboard. The software speaks to you.” Since many blind people touch type, Danielsen says, this kind of system works smoothly.

Apple’s VoiceOver app provides the same options for Apple products, Danielsen adds. “The difference is that it can be controlled by gestures as opposed to the keyboard. That works for us.”

Screen reader technology for the blind can often communicate with devices that create braille displays, and the Kindle does not offer that option, he says.

The NFB site offers an overview of its push to make ebooks available to the blind, along with information on a letter-writing and video campaign to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and template letters for blind children and their parents to use when writing Bezos.

After Amazon introduced its text-to-speech function in 2009 with the Kindle 2, the company faced pressure from the Authors Guild which claimed that the read-aloud feature was a copyright infringement. The guild demanded that authors and publishers be able to block this feature, and Amazon relented, allowing them to do so on a title-by-title basis.

“We became involved and took Amazon’s side,” says Danielsen. “We were hoping that being positive about what Amazon had done would lead them to incorporate more accessibility features.”

The NFB also filed suit against Arizona State University in 2009 for adopting the Kindle DX, claiming that its menus could not be used by blind students. In January of 2010, four universities agreed not to use the Kindle DX until it was made accessible for blind students. That summer, the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education released an open letter stating that it was unacceptable for colleges and universities to adopt ereaders that blind students could not use.

The cost of implementing these functions should not be an issue for Amazon, Danielsen maintains. “Other people have done this without increasing the cost of their products,” he says.

At the protest, he says, “We will directly interface with Amazon and the public and we are going to inform the public that Amazon is not making ebooks accessible to blind children and hopefully that will have an impact.”

Sarah Bayliss About Sarah Bayliss

Sarah Bayliss (sbayliss@mediasourceinc.com) is associate editor, news and features, at School Library Journal.


  1. So wait, if blind students can’t fully use something, other students should be able to use it either? What about chalk boards in classrooms? I guatentee school libraries don’t have Braille copies for every book in its collection, so should students not be allowed to use the library? It’s horrible to gave a disability, but that should not mean that you try to disadvantage the other students.

    • Chris Danielsen says:

      If Amazon makes its technoloogy accessible, then all students will be able to use it, including blind students, and there will be no issue of disadvantage to anyone. This, and not keeping Kindle technology out of schools, is the real goal of our protest. If Amazon refuses, however, there are other technologies that schools can adopt that are already accessible to the blind. So all students would still get technology, just not necessarily Kindle technology. As for the other tools you mention, electronic tools are different from print books and chalkboards because, unlike those tools, e-books are readily able to be made accessible. They are 0’s and 1’s that can be converted into speech, Braille, etc. without human intervention. Blind people have tolerated separate accommodations in the past, but there is no good reason for us to accept them with respect to e-books.

  2. So you suggest that all companies be required to make everything accessible for everyone? If a school wants to purchase Kindles (although I’m sure there are cheaper versions out there that would work just as well), why could then not get a blind student a different device that fit his/her needs?

  3. Bann, sadly, it doesn’t work that way. First, on a practical level, since there are alternatives, why burden the school district or institution with maintaining multiple devices–one for sighted people and a different one for blind people? There’s no way everyone gets what they need in that scenario. On a larger scale, K-12 education is a requirement, not an option, for every child in this country. Technology should be able to bridge our differences, not further divide us. I guess Amazon could cede the vast K-12 market opportunity to devices that are accessible–that is their choice. But the school’s first commitment must be to serve all their students in the least restrictive environment with equal learning opportunities.

  4. Robyn Harris says:

    >> Chris Danielsen said:
    >> If Amazon makes its technoloogy accessible,
    >> then all students will be able to use it, including blind students, …
    >> and If Amazon refuses …

    Don’t get me wrong, it is not that I oppose beating up on corporate America any time they deserve it, but to imply that Amazon has some sort of agenda to segregate and disadvantage blind kids seems wildly improbable at best.

    Sighted or not, Amazon’s major concern is that your credit card number is valid. I suspect they are just as eager to make vision impaired kids a future revenue stream as they are for the 20/20 crowd.

    I am a software architect. Though I don’t work for any of the major players in the field, I use kindle, nook, blio, kobo, and iBook readers on a fairly regular basis and none of them comes anywhere close to meeting all of the capabilities we would like to imagine for accessible devices. But go back three short years and look at how much progress has been made in that time. This stuff is hard to do well, but everybody, Amazon included, is improving.

    Is attacking and protesting the companies that are bringing these wonders to us and our kids really the best or quickest road to get to a future world where technology will make this difference in visual ability completely irrelevant?

  5. The more people that are aware of this the better. I will be there Tuesday. We just want blind children to have the same advantages as all children.

  6. FYI, I came across the following article this morning and thought it may help settle this argument: Voice, Touch Accessibility Skills Coming to Kindle in Early 2013 – http://www.tomsguide.com/us/Kindle-Fire-Amazon-Voice-Touch,news-16409.html