Blind patrons sue Free Library of Philadelphia for providing unaccessible Nook ereaders

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From the press release by the National Federation of the Blind:

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.”

For further illustration of this important issue, please view this video comparing the NOOK Simple Touch with accessible e-book technology.

8 Comments on Blind patrons sue Free Library of Philadelphia for providing unaccessible Nook ereaders

  1. Greg Weeks // May 4, 2012 at 3:59 pm //–_Accessiblity_of_eBook_Readers.pdf

    As far as I can tell, none of the commercially available ebook readers meet the needs of fully blind patrons. I’m not sure how suing the library is going to help. Most of the kindle books have the text to speech turned off anyway and the kindle menus can’t be navigated without sight.

  2. Common Sense // May 4, 2012 at 5:18 pm //

    Text-to-speech works fine on a Kindle, for menu functionality as well as books that are enabled.

    I’m not fond of the “everything is a law suit” mentality, but a public library should have known better.

    If they really want to go after someone, they should go after publishers who disabled text-to-speech in the name of preserving professional audio book profits, but not through a law suit, through social media and generally making the issue known. A private company is not required to create products that serve special customers, but it should be in their best interests to do so.

  3. Are they going to sue Hertz next because Hertz doesn’t rent cars that the blind can drive?

    I read this article to my youngest sister, who is blind, and her reply was “That is beyond stupid”.

    Really, the technology to read braille on an e-reader doesn’t exist. Should all the sighted library patrons be kept from using an e-reader until a braille machine is invented?

    And, as my sister pointed out, an e-reader’s TTS function is pretty useless anyway due to the dearth of available titles. What’s wrong with borrowing an audiobook, since that is what they want in the first place; and there are lots of available titles?

    It really isn’t the library’s fault if the technology doesn’t exist to give the blind what they want.

  4. January, if you’ll watch the video linked in the above article, you’ll see that it is indeed possible to read braille via an e-reader. Also, the number of books available in electronic text is vastly larger than the number of books available in audio.

    I think an important point that shouldn’t be forgotten is that limiting accessibility to the disabled means limiting accessibility to everyone. There are times when even non-disabled folk may need to use accessibility features (for example, using text to speech to read aloud books while commuting). If libraries buy technology in which accessibility features are built in, then they don’t have to go to the expense of buying special technology for the disabled, and all of the library patrons can make use of the technology. It seems to me that’s a win-win solution: for disabled patrons, for non-disabled patrons, and for budget-strapped libraries.

  5. Actually, the iPad has a pretty good array of accessibility features. Here are the details for vision disabilities:
    It even supports wireless braille displays.

  6. Reading Exhibit B by the president of the NFB was interesting. For example he acknowledges that there are different forms of “print disabilities” such as low vision and manual disabilities that many ereaders would satisfy. Then he demands that libraries purchase only ebooks that publishers have enabled text-to-speech to comply with various laws. Also, libraries should not use any inaccessible software to obtain these ebooks. One such software in violation of the ADA is Adobe Digital Editions.

    So, he wants an unnamed device that satisfies all possible disabilities.
    Only ebooks that have text-to-speech enabled.
    DRM free ebooks or books that don’t require ADE.

    I did laugh at his “libraries can force publishers to change” remarks.

  7. I sort of don’t understand this because the vast, vast majority of a library’s collection would not be accessible without adaptive technology. Printed books, for example.

    Most libraries don’t have Braille collections & refer patrons to State managed programs. Or large cooperatives.

    What about OCR scanning technologies? Won’t work on a Nook?

  8. That’s a wonderful solution to the problem–suing the Free Library. My daughter is print-impaired with a reading disorder diagnosis. The librarians at the Free Library have bent over backwards helping me find audio books for her. Sure I’d love them to have text to speech e-readers, but the technology isn’t there for the main stream e-readers. The Free Library has suffered a 22% budget cut from 2008. Why don’t you sue Barnes and Noble instead of the public library.

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