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Feds increase scrutiny on e-readers’ campus use

Last year the Kindle, Amazon’s platform for electronic books, caused quite a stir when a lawsuit from a blind student ended a pilot program for using the device at Arizona State University. While the Kindle had a feature that would read text aloud to users with impaired vision, it had no nonvisual menus they could use to access it.

The case sent ripples through higher education in the U.S. just as digital textbooks were starting to catch on, forcing Amazon to upgrade their hardware this summer and leading the Justice Department to intervene and broker settlements with four other universities. It was agreed that the e-readers would be off-limits in academia until the problems of blind users were addressed.

Now the DOJ has joined with the Department of Education to reiterate that the Kindle and its like are not welcome in the classroom unless they are equipped for use by all students.

“It is unacceptable for universities to use emerging technology without insisting that this technology be accessible to all students,” said Education Department assistant secretary for civil rights Russlynn Ali in a joint letter with assistant U.S. attorney general Thomas E. Perez.

“The key here is fully accessible, not in-part accessible,” Ali said in follow-up comments to The Associated Press. “Blind users cannot navigate the menu. They couldn’t fast forward or even know which book they were reading.”

The report says Amazon is still working on ironing out its accessibility issues.

An interesting note: Ali clarified that the e-reader policy would apply to K-12 schools in addition to colleges and universities, though so far only a school district in Florida has expressed interest.

Full disclosure: The author, who has blogged about this topic frequently in the past, now teaches Online Media at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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