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Universities avoid Kindle over accessibility barriers

Suits from blind groups over lack of menu aids

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Three US universities have agreed not to use Amazon's e-book reader the Kindle until it is easily usable by blind people. A fourth settled a complaint from blind people's advocacy groups by saying that it will strive to use accessible devices in future.

Though the Kindle DX reader can read out text, making it potentially useful to blind people or those with low vision, it offers no way to navigate its controls and menus that is accessible to blind users.

Along with a student, US groups the National Federation of the Blind and the American Council of the Blind sued Arizona State University last year over its trial of Kindle readers. The suit said that the University was in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).

That Act prohibits discrimination against people on the basis of their disability and applies to public bodies and all post-secondary educational institutions whether public or private.

Though maintaining that it had not broken the law, the University settled that case and the trial of the machines will be allowed to conclude this spring.

The American Council of the Blind said that it reached the agreement because of "the university's agreement that should ASU deploy e-book readers in future classes over the next two years, it will strive to use devices that are accessible to the blind", according to a Council statement.

The Department of Justice said that three other universities had agreed not to use or promote Kindle devices or other e-book readers that were not fully accessible to blind users.

"Under the agreements reached today, the universities generally will not purchase, recommend or promote use of the Kindle DX, or any other dedicated electronic book reader, unless the devices are fully accessible to students who are blind and have low vision. The universities agree that if they use dedicated electronic book readers, they will ensure that students with vision disabilities are able to access and acquire the same materials and information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as sighted students with substantially equivalent ease of use."

The universities which have agreed to refrain from using the Kindle or any non-compliant machine are Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland; Pace University in New York; and Reed College in Oregon.

"Advancing technology is systematically changing the way universities approach education, but we must be sure that emerging technologies offer individuals with disabilities the same opportunities as other students," said assistant US attorney general Thomas E. Perez. "These agreements underscore the importance of full and equal educational opportunities for everyone."

The universities will be allowed to complete their pilot programmes before the agreements take effect.

Amazon said in December that it would release Kindle machines with an audio menu by summer of this year.

"[The Kindle] has enabled many vision-impaired readers to enjoy books more easily than before, and has also helped dyslexic readers and those with learning disabilities improve their reading skills," said its statement. "To make Kindle more useful for the blind, the Kindle team is currently working on an audible menuing system, so blind and vision-impaired readers can easily navigate to books unassisted."

"In addition, a new super size font will be added to Kindle, increasing the number of font sizes from six to seven. This seventh font size will be twice the height and width of the current largest font. These new features are scheduled for release by the summer of 2010," said the statement.

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