The ACB and NFB lawsuit against ASU-Amazon textbook test program is a big deal for discrimination activism and an educational opportunity on accessibility. The detailed complaint explains difficulties of blind student textbook use at ASU and how adoption of the Amazon Kindle trial program will set a bad example.
The textbook program has caught Television public interest reports on journalism student Darrell Shandrow. Comments in Chronicle.com Wired Campus report on the lawsuit have invoked understanding and support mixed with political outrage at ADA accommodations. Related issues on Reading Rights activism on publisher/author control over text-to-speech cloud the issues of accessibility of the Kindle device itself.
The purpose of this post is to inject my own opinion as well as link to some useful resources.
I speak as a former educator who struggled with textbook bulk and price; software engineer with spoken interface development experience;
and research manager with technology transfer background.
Although not a member of either ACB or NFB, I am a
visually impaired avid reader living hours a day with text-to-speech and affectionate owner of many assistive tools described in this blog.
Oh, yeah, also an Arizona resident with some insight into ASU programs and ambitions.
I try to untangle the arguments my own way. Based on my own ignorance of a few years ago, I suspect many sighted people and those in process of losing vision lack understanding of how audio reading works. I provide a recorded demo of myself working the menus of a device for book and news reading to show the comparable capabilities lacking in the Amazon Kindle.
By the way, I’ve never seen, fondled, or considered buying a Kindled.
Untangling the Kindle-ASU-textbook Arguments
- Text-to-speech (TTS) is the work horse, the engine, for assistive technology (AT) for visually impaired (VI) people. TTS reads content as well as providing a spoken interface for menus, forms, selections, and other user operations. Nothing novel, implemented in dozens of devices on the market, standard expected functionality to support accessibility.
- Amazon product designers included TTS presumably to provide a talking interface for mobile, hands-full users. TTS could read unlocked books, news, or documents downloaded to the Kindle, but only on Kindle software and rights management platforms. This established TTS as a mainstream commodity functionality, much like a spell checker as expected in any text processor.
- Book authors reacted that TTS represented a different presentation for which they could not control pricing or distribution. Amazon said, “ok, we’ll flip the default to give publishers control over enabling TTS”. Accessibility activists complained “hey, you just took away an essential attractive feature of the Kindle” and “You authors, don’t you want us to buy your books in a form we can read as immediately as on-screen readers”.
- More experience with the Kindle revealed that the TTS capability was not implemented to support the spoken interface familiar for VI people in commodity AT devices. See our downloadable demo and referenced tutorials to understand the critical role of spoken interfaces.
- Bummer. The Kindle that promised to become a main stream accessible reading device was a brick, a paperweight, a boat anchor or door jamb if it weighed enough, just an inert object to someone who could not read the buttons or see menus and other interactions. Useless, cutting off 250,000 books and every other kind of content Amazon could funnel into the Kindle. Well there’s always Victor Reader, Bookport, Icon, and a host of other devices we already own plus services like Bookshare, NFB Newsline, NLS reading services, Audible commercial audios, etc. Disappointed, a step forward missed.
- Now universities enter the picture with a partnership opportunity to test out the Kindle on textbooks for selected courses, an educational experiment for the next academic year. Rising complaints from students about textbook costs, often $500 per semester, plus chronic dissatisfaction with the packaged all-in-one book has lead to alternative formats, even abandonment, of textbooks in many subjects. Great opportunity here to re-examine educational benefits of a product and distribution system already familiar to tech-greedy students. But would the learning outcomes hold up? Amazon doesn’t say how rigorous this test program would be, but at least there’s be more Kindle-driven classroom feedback.
- Uh, oh. Those darned blind students can’t use the Kindle. Can universities block them from Kindle trial courses? or let them in, relying on the established accessible material support practices forced by A.D.A.? This messes up the trial because the total population of students unfortunately includes visually impaired and a range of other disabilities. Of course, there could be an economic winner here to reduce accessible material preparation costs, easily as much as the $500 Kindle when all staff and scanning prep time are included. Or even insights might be gained into how Kindle mitigates learning difficulties for some disabilities. Ouch, though conversely, it could be that reading on-screen amplifies learning difficulties students have overcome with print practices. Well, it’s a trial, an experiment, right? But, actually, this taxpayer and researcher asks, what are the parameters and the point of the trial program with several universities? Huh, just asking, can’t find any detail.
- So the well-lawyered NFB and ACB get together and back a long-time accessibility activist and now ASU student in a lawsuit injunction. Why get so huffy and legal? Outsiders don’t know in detail what mediation or requests have already been suggested and rebuffed but, just guessing, these organizations are probably long on experience and short on patience on accessibility issues and promises. There’s a history of Apple pushing onto universities IPods and ITunes when these devices and services weren’t accessible. Settling with the Massachusetts blind services, Apple finally got out an accessible ITunes. Amazon has a legal record on accessibility as does the LSAT.com registration website. I can well understand the reasoning that a big gorilla like Amazon won’t take time for accessibility if it can avoid doing so, for both profit and ego motives. The lawsuit simply says “Time out! Amazon, you can make the Kindle accessible just like standard practice with AT we already use.” And “ASU and other universities, don’t even think of harming VI students or taking on a tainted experiment that excludes VI students”. What’s the hurry, everybody? The textbook problem won’t be solved next year, the market will always be there, so it’s possible to have a trial that’s fair, responsible, and more informative if accessibility is counted in.
- Now, even local Phoenix television stations got interested in the story and, wow, what an educational moment! ASU public relations, still not recovered from their Obama honorary degree fiasco, responded with a flat “we have disability services in place. That’s enough!”. But this taxpayer thinks differently. Part of the experiment is rapid delivery of texts and other materials, perhaps challenging or disrupting disability services. And if the Kindle device itself is part of a trial, then what happens with students using alternative, perhaps even superior, technology? Trivia like different pagination in Kindle texts compared with converted texts distributed to VI students might introduce problems. Isn’t this setting up the trial for either (1) obvious bias by exclusion of VI students or (2) additional burden on VI students? Why not just wait until the device is comparable enough that harm is minimized and more is knowable in the long run about learning outcomes and economic models?
- But, wait, there might be a real technology barrier here. Software engineers know that the cost of repair for a missing requirement goes way up long after design, becoming deadly after deployment. Accessibility was not a requirement for the reader device although it’s a legal requirement in the university marketplace. Oops, this was a blunder. If the design of the Kindle software permits sliding in functionality like calls to the TTS engine, retrofit might not be too bad. But there’s a browser, keyboard, and lots of interactions that could get tricky. Usability is notably difficult to do well without experimentation and iteration. So, this is just one more case study relevant to the many software engineering texts in the Amazon market.
- Finally, as others have commented, regarding the Chronicle.com forum, railing against A.D.A. as an intrusion on public rights, a sign of backwardness for disabled individuals, and general disregard of human rights is, well, sickening. I wish those detractors a broken leg during a health insurance lapse with a long flight of stairs to the rest room. That’s life, bozos, and we’ll all be disabled in the long run.
What is the listening experience? Hear me show you!
I use the Levelstar Icon to download books from Bookshare.org. My library is currently about 1000 books, complemented by daily doses of news feeds and newspapers. I’ve turned this situation into a demo:
download the 15 minute AYWC-reading-demo.mp3 from http://apodder.org/stumbles/
You’ll hear me narrating book downloads and reading. The demo illustrates both (1) TTS reading books and news and (2) working around menus and lists of books do perform operations commonly shown ona screen. This latter capability is the crux of the Kindle accessibility disagreement.
For more information on this device and interface, the Levelstar.com audio tutorials illustrate the standard practice of supplanting screens with voice-enabled menus. For the record, the operating environment is Linux and the designers of the Icon and its partner product APH BraillePlus are blind. Personally, I think the mainstream product capabilities have a lot to learn and gain from the AT industry it has so far excluded. Perhaps, following the Curb Cuts principle even better, universal designs will emerge from this mess.