National Federation of the Blind slams proposed education contract with Amazon

e-reader on a desk with a pile of books
Inaccessible E-Readers

In letters sent to the New York City Department of Education on August 7 and August 13, the National Federation of the Blind criticized a proposed contract with Amazon Digital Services that would provide inaccessible e-readers to students.

At issue is the technology Amazon uses to convert written documents to its Kindle e-book readers.

As described in the letters, most mainstream publishers create digital files using the ePub3 format, which is easily convertible to accessible formats, such as text-to-speech readers or Braille, for people who are blind or have other visual disabilities.

The limitations of Amazon’s MobiPocket converter, however, make it difficult for people with visual disabilities to read “anything more than a simple novel,” the NFB wrote in the August 13 letter. Specifically, the NFB argues the format makes it difficult to read, for example, mathematical tables, symbols and equations.

Many other structural features for navigating pages, such as placing footnotes, are limited as well.

“Kindle books are wholly unsuited for the rigors of the classroom, whether in a purely verbal subject, such as English, or a STEM subject requiring mathematical and scientific notation, such as biology,” the NFB wrote in the August 13 letter. “By contrast, there are many other distributors that, unlike Amazon, sell digital books in the ePub3 format used by major publishers.

“These ePub3-formatted books provide blind and other print-disabled students and faculty the same rich reading experience as their nondisabled peers.”

If the letters are unsuccessful, the NFB plans to protest outside the NYC DOE’s Panel for Educational Policy meeting on August 27, where it is set to vote on the proposal.

“We plan to tell the panel that a vote for this deal is an outrageous act of deliberate discrimination against blind students and an equally outrageous and deliberate violation of federal law,” the NFB said in a news release.