Amazon, Sony and other companies are petitioning the Federal Communications Commission to be permanently exempt from federal accessibility laws for individuals with disabilities. E-readers, according to a letter they sent earlier this year, are “barebones devices” made for only one purpose, reading text, and therefore should not have to be fully accessible to the blind.
Under the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, which President Obama signed into law in 2010, equipment that is “used for advanced communications services [ACS], including end user equipment” must be “accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities.” Manufacturers who are not in compliance with the law can be forced to do so by the government.
Including features to make e-readers like the Amazon Kindle, the Sony Reader and the Kobo Glo accessible to the blind would make the devices carry a higher price tag. Cost is not the main reason that Amazon and the other companies cite in their letter, though.
Rather, they base their request on the current legal distinction between an e-reader and a tablet. E-readers, the manufacturers contend, have “purposeful hardware limitations” — stripped down browsers, insufficient capacity to display videos, no capacity to generate audio output — that makes them distinct from tablets. Nothing less than the “fundamental nature” of an e-reader would be changed if they included more features.
The suit even argues that “many view the absence of robust communication tools on e-readers as a welcome break from distraction rather than as a limitation.” The requirement to make devices accessible to individuals with disabilities would, says the suit, “convert e-readers into something they are not: a general purpose device.”
The FCC is soliciting public comments on the matter through Sept. 3.
Chris Danielsen, the director of public relations for the National Federation of the Blind, urges Amazon and other manufacturers to do the right thing and “make the devices accessible because you have to. They’re not just being used for pleasure reading; they are being used for education.”
Amazon is in fact giving hundreds of schools that have agreed to use its devices a bulk discount and has created software that would allow teachers to manage students using them.
Amazon is certainly seeking to have its devices used in educational settings. That’s all the more reason that it and other manufacturers must make their devices accessible as under federal law, devices used in educational settings must be accessible to those with visual impairments.
Apple’s iPads have found many uses among individuals with disabilities precisely because they can be adapted to suit their needs. Built into Apple’s mobile devices is an application called VoiceOver, which makes it possible for users to control devices with simple gestures and to hear what is written simply by touching the screen. There are also a number of Bluetooth-powered braille readers for mobile devices and Android is seeking to develop similar features.
As Danielson points out, Amazon, Sony and Kobo are also seeking a permanent ruling about e-readers, devices that have only been available for a few years. “We don’t know what features the market will demand, or what manufacturers will ultimately provide through these devices,” he says.
The argument that Amazon and other manufacturers are making rests on semantic distinctions. The reality is that they are splitting hairs to avoid complying with federal law and showing little regard for individuals with disabilities. As disability rights advocates point out, one day most of us will have disabilities, including possibly visual and hearing impairments. Amazon and other manufacturers must make devices that any and everyone can use.
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