The Dark Side of eReaders

Part of my daily job is to be sure that the disabled students on my campus have access to the same resources that any student has access to, regardless of their disability.  Most of us think “big” when we think about disabled people; those with mobility issues, blindness, or deafness.  In reality, there’s a whole host of disabilities, some visible, and some not so visible.  My students range from debilitating disabilities to those that are virtually invisible, but all students receive the same considerations for their disabilities, and are awarded the accommodations they need to bring them on level with non-disabled students.

In my little microcosm, this often involves creating and providing text in an alternative format.  It might be in audio, or tagged xml files (more commonly known as DAISY files), or simple text files that can be manipulated in multiple ways by the user.  Out of hundreds of disabled students I serve on a regular basis, there are dozens of solutions we may use for various disabilities.

You would think eReaders might be a really good solution to some of our accommodation needs.  And you would be wrong.  One of the most inaccessible devices on the planet is the much-hailed and much-loved eBook reader.  Even with some features like enlargement of text and the ability to have the book read in audio, this is not provided in enough depth nor breadth to offer true accessibility.  As one example, while some books on the Kindle can be played using the text-to-speech function, the menus are not in an audible format, so how is a visually impaired person supposed to even get to the book in the first place?  And this is just one issue, and does not cover all of the potential problems with eReaders when it comes to disabled readers.

And to make matters worse, some colleges and universities have bought into the hype and are forcing eBooks onto their student populations, under the assumption that it will save money for students (this is debatable all on its own) and that students will like it better because it’s electronic (this has also been debunked, for the most part).  But in their rush to embrace the new, they didn’t take a good, hard look at what was at stake.

Now the Department of Justice is doing it for them. In a statement released yesterday jointly by the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Education, with an endorsement from the Office of Civil Rights, schools are cautioned against recommending, forcing, or prescribing eBook readers for their students.  “It is unacceptable for universities to use emerging technology without insisting that this technology be accessible to all students,” the statement said in part.

Most users of eReaders don’t care that their eReaders are accessible.  But up to 10% of the market share may belong to readers who need such features available to them.  In the world of eReaders, which are now selling like hotcakes, that market share could be significant.

As an educator, I am glad to see the DOJ and DOE taking a stance on this issue, which up until this point was only being addressed in the civil courts.  That’s a huge waste of money, when a simple statement from these two agencies could have put a stop to it long ago.  Disabled students on my campus are happy to know that they will not be forced, anytime soon, to jump on the eReader bandwagon.  Someday, those readers may reach accessibility levels that are appropriate, but until then, my students won’t be forced onto the devices, and that’s good news all around.