Colleges face obstacles with e-reader technology for disabled students

Colleges face obstacles with e-reader technology for disabled studentsPerhaps you've heard that the U.S. Department of Education is requiring schools to use e-reader technology that accommodates blind students. A while back, we wrote about the colleges giving iPads to their students. It's a beautiful thing, isn't it? Free devices that could feasibly host text books, the Internet and any of the thousands of available apps? Incredible.

And there are some obvious plus sides to going digital -- as Engadget reported, Stanford removed 70,000 books (mostly periodicals now digitally searchable) from its Engineering Library, which freed up space for "more productive causes."

But before we all start celebrating the joys of e-readers, let's examine the obstacles facing colleges that hope to use the devices as a primary outlet for textbooks.

The U.S. Departments of Justice and Education sent a letter to university officials across the country on June 29 that required all colleges, universities, and K-12 schools to find alternatives for blind students if e-readers are required in the classroom, as covered by our sister site Daily Finance.

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

The issue of e-reader accessibility sprouted from a lawsuit that a University of Arizona student filed against the school in 2009. The student claimed that the Kindle, a required piece of technology on campus, was inaccessible to blind students and therefore violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, passed by President George H.W. Bush. Following this incident, the Justice Department shut down four other Kindle programs at different schools (Princeton, Pace, Case Western, and Reed).

Granted, the Kindle does have the "read aloud" feature, which could benefit blind students. But as Chris Danielsen, a spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), said to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Kindle doesn't include a user interface that's accessible to blind students. Initially, the "read aloud" feature was touted by Amazon as a feature made to help blind readers. But as Ali said to AP, users would still need help using the device.

"The key here is fully accessible, not in-part accessible," Ali said. "Blind users cannot navigate the menu. They couldn't fast forward or even know which book they were reading."

And the Kindle isn't the only one inaccessible to blind students. Danielsen said the Barnes & Noble NOOK reader and the Sony Reader also were ill-equipped to help blind students. However, the NFB has frequently praised the iPad. Why? Every iPad comes with a setting called "VoiceOver," which vocalizes everything on the page.

Obviously, VoiceOver isn't like having somebody reading to you in a soothing, Jim Dale tone. It's unmistakably a robot talking in a monotone with strange pauses and inflections. But as a user interface, it's an extremely helpful feature. It indicates exactly what button you're touching and makes you double tap anything before it lets you proceed. It reads entire lines from iBooks (and after a few minutes of hearing that robot monotone, listening to Dickens from the mouth of a robot could start being a manageable practice).

In a press release, the NFB said, "By integrating accessibility into its products, Apple is setting an example that we believe the rest of the electronics industry should follow."

Amazon has not commented on recent developments, but said in the past that it is working on including features to open accessibility for blind readers, AP reports.

So the ball is in your court, e-reader creators. Opening up your hardware to the blind will sidestep a flurry of legal issues, but in the long run, it will also open up whole new worlds to disabled college students.

Evan Minsker's Thrifty Tech appears Tuesdays. Got a hot, cheap-tech tip, question or comment? Write to Evan via our email address, MoneyCollege@WalletPop.com.

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