Three Cheers for Hachette Book Group

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By Peter Blanck:



March 09: As people and institutions move away from print and toward electronic books, publishers are making more and more books available in electronic formats, using devices like Amazon's Kindle and Sony's Reader, digitization services like Google's, and downloadable books such as Adobe Digital Editions.

The technology is becoming more user-friendly, and readers welcome the new options. E-books offer benefits for all readers, including reduction of damage to the environment, portability, light weight, and improved reference capabilities. But for some readers, e-books offer even more: their first opportunity to enjoy reading.


People with print disabilities--those who are blind or have low vision, people with dyslexia or other learning disabilities, and those with manual-dexterity impairments who have trouble holding books or turning pages--struggle to read print books. People with low literacy and those who don't read English face similar difficulties. Such struggles keep good employees from advancing, lead intelligent people to cut short their academic careers, and deny people the joy of reading for pleasure.

E-books have the potential to open the world of reading--and the potential for academic and employment success--to approximately 30 million people with disabilities. E-books are, at heart, sequences of ones and zeros that are converted into usable format by a computer. As such, they are not inherently limited to text. They can be rendered in electronic text, Braille, or hieroglyphics as well as in print on paper.

E-books can also now be rendered in audible format, which makes them usable by people with print disabilities, low literacy, or for whom English is a second language. Thus, as e-books make their way into libraries, academic institutions, and the business world, opportunities may be opened up to these people as never before.

Unfortunately, a variety of barriers keep e-books from reaching people who would benefit from audio formats. The Amazon Kindle has text-to-speech capability that will read an e-book aloud in a computerized voice. But the device itself is not accessible to blind people, because the menus are on-screen only, with no audio option. Because the menus are inaccessible, a blind student would be unable to find and turn on the text-to-speech function that she needs to read a book.

Other devices, such as Apple's iPhone, offer audible menus, but Amazon lags behind.


even colleges and universities have jumped at the opportunity to incorporate the Kindle into their courses and are providing Kindles to their students this fall. However, offering inaccessible e-books very likely violates the Americans With Disabilities Act. Advocates for people with disabilities have sued Arizona State University and filed complaints with the Department of Education and Department of Justice against Case Western Reserve, Pace, and Princeton Universities, Reed College, and the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business.

Although the Kindle has text-to-speech capability, some publishers have called on Amazon to turn off the feature in their books. Apparently afraid that computerized text-to-speech will compete with its audiobooks, for example, Random House is systematically turning off text-to-speech in its Kindle editions. Advocates for those with disabilities, through the Reading Rights Coalition, have protested and petitioned to keep text-to-speech on. At least one publisher, Hachette Book Group, has agreed to permit text-to-speech in all of its books unless the author objects or the book is scheduled to be offered as an audiobook.

Several libraries have begun offering downloadable e-books through Adobe Digital Editions


Unfortunately, those books are not readable by text-to-speech software or devices

Therefore, while nondisabled patrons can download books from their homes, people with print disabilities must go to the library to order the audiobook or other accessible format (if available), and wait for it to arrive. It is only a matter of time before such a library is sued or investigated by a federal agency under the ADA.

We, as educators, librarians, and employers, have legal obligations to ensure that all our students have access to our programs. But more important, it is our larger responsibility and concern to make sure that potential readers are fully and equally included. Blind people or those with low vision are no less academically talented than sighted students. People with learning disabilities are no less capable of contributing to their employers. And people with limited manual dexterity are no less able to enjoy reading and learning. In an age when our colleges, businesses, and society need the talents of everyone, we have a responsibility to lead the charge against unnecessary barriers that keep people from achieving their potential and making their full contribution.

We also have the power to knock down those barriers. We are a strong market force. We can, should, and arguably must refuse to purchase e-books and other electronic devices and services unless and until they are made accessible to all. If we don't care, the vendors won't care. If we insist, the vendors will rush to comply.

In recognition of the purchasing power of libraries, the American Library Association recently adopted a resolution strongly encouraging libraries to require vendors of electronic resources to guarantee accessibility, encouraging user-testing of technology before adoption, and encouraging financial supporters to provide sufficient resources to ensure accessibility. The Los Angeles Public Library recently announced that it would not purchase additional Adobe Digital Editions downloadable electronic books until they are made accessible. Academic institutions should develop similar policies


Adopting inaccessible technology and retrofitting it later, or being sued for violating disability-rights laws, is a dangerous and expensive approach to progress.

Rather than adopt technology and worry about inclusion later, we should put procurement policies in place that require vendors to guarantee the accessibility of their products and services. We should demand user-testing in advance. Such an up-front step will ensure that we are being inclusive and economical--and will help us avoid more significant and unnecessary expenses in the long run

By Peter Blanck, is a university professor, with a primary appointment in law, at Syracuse University and chairman of the Burton Blatt Institute


Source: http://chronicle.com

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