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June 18, 2012 SENT VIA E-MAIL The Honorable Hillary Clinton Secretary U.S. Department of State 2201 C Street NW Washington, DC 20520 Re: Kindle Mobile Learning Initiative Purchase of Inaccessible Kindle E-Reader Devices
Dear Secretary Clinton, I am the president of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), the largest membership organization of blind people in the United States. It has come to my attention that the United States Department of State is pursuing a contract with Amazon.com, Inc. for the acquisition of 35,000 Kindle e-readers at the anticipated value of 16.5 million dollars and that the United States intends to announce this week a partnership with Amazon.com to create a global e-reader program, the Kindle Mobile Learning Initiative, which will involve the deployment of Kindle ereaders to United States embassies and libraries abroad. The sole-source Justification and Approval issued by the State Department does not require that the Kindles to be procured by the United States be accessible to the blind and others with print disabilities. Because it is technically feasible for e-readers to be accessible, any agreement by the United States to procure inaccessible Kindle, or other, e-readers is a violation of the law, including Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. The NFB is a national nonprofit membership organization of over 50,000 members. The ultimate purpose of the NFB is the complete integration of the blind into society on an equal basis. The NFB engages in advocacy, education, research, technology, and programs encouraging the independence and self-confidence of people who are blind or have low vision. Since the late 1990s we have devoted significant resources to ensure equal access to digital information. Equal access to digital information is critical, not only because of the increasing pervasiveness of digital content, but also because, unlike print, digital information is not inherently
The Honorable Hillary Clinton June 18, 2012 Page 2 of 4 visual. Rather, digital content can be made available visually, aurally, and tactilely all at the same time and from the same original digital source. Technology advances in general can enable the blind to have greater access to books, periodicals, and other print materials traditionally available only in print. In the past, when libraries and education programs provided only print books, the blind had to rely on separate processes to obtain accessible versions of books. However, because e-books which, consist of ones and zeros, are not inherently visual, aural, or tactile, they offer individuals the opportunity to access content through whatever methods are available to them. Indeed, some e-book reading technologies available in the marketplace today are fully accessible to the blind and print disabled. They include, for example, Apple’s iPad and KNFB Reading Technology’s Blio. Moreover, the cost of a fully accessible Apple iPad 2 is $399 compared to the more expensive $471-per-unit inaccessible Kindles the proposed United States agreement contemplates. We understand the United States intends, through the Kindle Initiative, to “create a global e-reader program that introduces aspects of U.S. society and culture directly to young people, students, and international audiences in new ways and expands English language learning opportunities worldwide.” While the NFB recognizes the enormous promise that e-book technology offers and the significant benefits to youth and students abroad, these benefits cannot be denied to the world’s blind and print disabled youth and students. Indeed, the great disparity in access to information that exists between the sighted and the blind and print disabled in this country is even greater still in most countries abroad. For some blind and print disabled individuals in the communities in which the United States will administer the program, an accessible e-reader may be the only opportunity the student has to access independently such information. Unfortunately, the contemplated agreement with Amazon does not provide for accessible Kindles. While the sole-source Justification and Approval the Department issued requires text-to-speech capability for the content, that alone will not render the device accessible. The navigation and menus must also be accessible. As the Kindle is currently designed, a blind person must have a sighted individual enable the text-to-speech function and then the blind reader must listen to the book from beginning to end without the ability to skip around the text or otherwise control navigation through the material. As the proposed deal between the Department of State and Amazon currently stands, there is no provision that requires the devices be accessible in accordance
The Honorable Hillary Clinton June 18, 2012 Page 3 of 4 with the Department’s obligations under Section 508. The requirement that electronic books be accessible to the blind and print-disabled precludes the government from procuring inaccessible e-book reading technology and from continuing to rely upon separate, unequal processes for people with disabilities. It is no excuse that a vendor has not made its product accessible. The inaccessibility of the Kindle devices does not result from the absence of existing technology to make e-books accessible. Rather, it is entirely the product of Amazon’s lack of interest in providing fully accessible e-books and e-book devices that are accessible to the blind or print-disabled. In 2008, shortly after Amazon introduced the Kindle, my colleagues and I met with the Kindle product development team to persuade them of the mainstream commercial worth of making e-book content available audibly through a text-tospeech engine and the marginal additional cost of making the menus and navigation accessible so that the device would also be accessible to the blind. Subsequently, Amazon released the Kindle 2, in which it made the content available audibly, but did not add the additional technology to make the device accessible to the blind and print disabled. When the Association of American Publishers (AAP) and the Authors Guild objected to Amazon’s enabling audible content, Amazon asked the NFB to help with the expectation that it would create a Kindle the blind and print disabled could use. We subsequently helped form the Reading Rights Coalition, which included organizations for people with print disabilities including dyslexia, cerebral palsy, and upper spinal cord injuries who cannot access print visually with any facility to persuade the publishers to keep text-to-speech on the content. Our efforts culminated in a statement issued by the White House with agreement from the NFB, the Authors Guild and AAP that digital books should be accessible. Amazon has failed to render a fully accessible e-reading device. We have since filed complaints against institutions that have purchased Kindles for their patrons in violation of their legal obligations. These efforts included complaints with the Departments of Justice and Education against universities that piloted the inaccessible Kindle DX and ended in resolutions prohibiting the universities from continuing to purchase or use inaccessible e-readers. Legal Obligations of the United States Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires “that individuals with disabilities, who are members of the public seeking information or services from a Federal agency, have access to and use of information and data that is comparable to that provided to the public who are not individuals with disabilities, unless an
The Honorable Hillary Clinton June 18, 2012 Page 4 of 4 undue burden would be imposed on the agency.” 36 C.F.R. § 1194.1. Moreover, when procuring or using electronic information technology, such as e-readers, each agency must ensure that the products comply with the technical standards imposed by Section 508. See 36 C.F.R. § 1194.2(a). The procurement of inaccessible Kindle e-readers by the United States is a violation of Section 508. I request that we meet as soon as possible to discuss the critical need for accessibility and to ensure that any final agreement between the United States Department of State and Amazon requires that e-readers procured be fully accessible to the blind and print disabled. Should the United States enter into a final agreement with Amazon to procure Kindles that are inaccessible, we will pursue legal action to ensure that the United States upholds its legal obligations and to ensure that the blind and print disabled do not fall even farther behind in the growing digital divide. To schedule a time to meet, please contact me at 410-6599314 or email@example.com. Sincerely,
Marc Maurer, President NATIONAL FEDERATION OF THE BLIND cc: Jeffrey Z. Bezos, Founder and CEO, Amazon.com, Inc. Kareem Dale, Associate Director, White House Office of Public Engagement & Special Assistant to the President for Disability Policy The Honorable Tom Harkin, United States Senator The Honorable John Kerry, United States Senator
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