With the assistance of the National Federation of the Blind, four blind patrons of the Free Library of Philadelphia—Denice Brown, Karen Comorato, Patricia Grebloski, and Antoinette Whaley—have filed suit (case number: 12-2373) against the library because they cannot access one of the library’s programs for which they are eligible. The Free Library of Philadelphia has instituted and announced plans to expand a program in which free NOOK Simple Touch e-readers, which are manufactured and sold by Barnes & Noble, are loaned to patrons over the age of fifty. Unlike some other portable e-readers that use text-to-speech technology and/or Braille to allow blind people to read e-books, the NOOK devices are completely inaccessible to patrons who are blind. The library’s conduct violates Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The Free Library of Philadelphia is aware that the NOOK devices are inaccessible, and library personnel have openly discouraged two of the blind plaintiffs from even attempting to check out one of the devices. The library is also aware that it is violating federal laws, having been so advised by the United States Department of Education, which has issued both a Dear Colleague letter and a subsequent Frequently Asked Questions document regarding the obligation of federally funded institutions to purchase accessible e-book readers and other technologies. The Free Library of Philadelphia does have a branch that lends Braille and audio books from the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped of the Library of Congress to blind patrons, but the selection of books is limited, and books are not available in these formats until months or years after they are released to the general public.
Dr. Marc Maurer, President of the National Federation of the Blind, said: “The technology to make e-books accessible exists, allowing blind people for the first time to buy or borrow books as soon as they are released. Too many e-book platforms and devices, however, remain needlessly inaccessible to the blind and others who cannot read print. Libraries have a legal obligation to serve their blind and print-disabled patrons and to not discriminate against them. They should be purchasing accessible e-book reading devices and demanding that their vendors provide them, not perpetuating the status quo by purchasing inaccessible technology and needlessly relegating their blind and print-disabled patrons to separate and unequal service. This is the standard to which we intend to hold the Free Library of Philadelphia and any other public library that chooses to flout the law by purchasing and lending inaccessible e-book technology.”
Denice Brown, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said: “I am disappointed and frustrated that I cannot use the exciting new e-book technology being offered by my local library. Worse yet, I was treated like a second-class citizen when I visited the library and asked about this new technology, with library personnel initially refusing even to help me fill out a form so that I could check out a NOOK Simple Touch. I hope that the Free Library of Philadelphia, of which I am a patron, will make a strong commitment to accessibility and cease its discrimination against me and other blind patrons.”