[nabs-l] Know Your Rights about E-Textbooks

Terri Rupp terri.rupp at gmail.com
Sat Jun 27 04:06:36 UTC 2009


*Accessible E-Books in Higher Education*

Dear NABS Member,

 As many of you know, colleges and universities are rapidly transitioning
from print to electronic textbooks and course materials.  For most of us,
who rely on our campus’s Disabled Students Services offices to obtain or
create accessible books required for our classes, electronic books
(“e-books”) and e-book readers should offer us the opportunity to have, for
the first time, the same access to course materials as our sighted
classmates.  Instead, many e-book and e-reader services contain gratuitous
accessibility barriers that exclude blind students from having the same
access and enjoying the benefits of e-books as our sighted classmates.  This
document is intended to educate you about your rights, as a blind student,
to have equal access to e-books and e-book readers.


*Many colleges and universities are starting to use e-books and e-textbooks
to be read on e-readers and/or computer software.   *


*Your college or university must ensure that any e-textbooks or e-readers it
offers are accessible.  *


*Offering accessible textbooks through the Disabled Services Office does NOT
constitute equal access.  *


*The Advantages of E-Textbooks and E-Readers*

 Colleges and universities are increasingly adopting e-textbooks and e-book
readers because of the many advantages they offer students.  E-textbooks
cost significantly less than print books, which is a great advantage for all
students.  Moreover, e-textbooks and the platforms on which they are read
typically offer the ability to highlight, annotate, bookmark, search,
instant dictionary look-up, navigational structure so that you can easily
find the chapter or page you want to read, and other features that improve
reading and studying.  Also, e-books are available instantly and are

 Because of these advantages, online e-textbook services, such as
CourseSmart and Vital Source are flourishing.  These retailers offer
e-textbooks that you can purchase online and instantly download to a
computer or laptop, or access online for a set period of time.  Both
services are currently inaccessible because the computer interface was not
designed for compatibility with screen access software and, some of the book
content is not offered in an accessible format.

 Other e-book services, like the Kindle, are also becoming popular.
Recently, Amazon released a new e-book reader, the Kindle DX, which features
a large screen that makes it particularly amenable to textbook use.  Six
colleges and universities are participating in a pilot program with Amazon
that will start in the Fall of 2009 to test the Kindle in the classroom.
The Kindle DX has text-to-speech and, to our knowledge, the e-textbooks are
capable of being read aloud (unlike some of the trade books, where
publishers have turned off the text-to-speech function).  However, the
controls on the Kindle DX are inaccessible to the blind.  Specifically, the
menus and settings do not have text-to-speech, so that there is currently no
non-visual means to locate the book you want to read, change the settings,
or check the battery status, etc.  As a result, most of us cannot
independently use the Kindle DX.

 As the e-textbook market takes off, many colleges and universities are
taking note and offering e-textbooks and e-readers to their students, either
by providing them directly to students, offering discounts, or requiring
their use.  Several state legislatures have introduced legislation that
encourages their state universities and colleges to consider e-textbooks as
a cost-saving measure.  Meanwhile, some universities and university systems,
such as Northwest Missouri State University and the University System of
Ohio have entered into contracts with e-textbook vendors to offer their
services to students.  Finally, as mentioned, six universities are piloting
the Kindle DX this fall, including Arizona State University, Princeton
University, Case Western Reserve University, Pace University, Reed College,
and the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.  This is only
the beginning of the tidal wave and we expect e-textbooks and e-book readers
will become increasingly become commonplace on campuses.

*Current Process for Obtaining Books as a Blind Student*

 While there are benefits to e-textbooks for everyone, they are particularly
attractive to blind students.  While each school has a different process for
providing accessible books and course materials to students, most follow a
procedure that requires blind students to purchase the print book months
before their courses start and submit a request for an accessible book to
the campus’s Disabled Students Services (DSS) office.  Typically, the DSS
office then attempts to locate an electronic file from the publisher or an
accessible copy through services like RFB&D, Bookshare, or the National
Library Service.  Electronic files obtained through the publisher are often
received at great delay and in PDF or other formats that are inaccessible or
lack navigational structure. Moreover, books obtained through other services
may not be available in your preferred reading format (for example,
sometimes only audio is available which can be more difficult to study from
than a text file).  When the DSS office cannot locate an electronic or
accessible file elsewhere, it must then create an in-house accessible file
by scanning and OCR’ing the print book page by page.  While not the fault of
the DSS offices, which often work very hard to locate and provide accessible
books, the process is time consuming and usually results in a text file that
does not have any navigation and may have OCR or other errors.  As a result,
we often do not receive our books until well into the semester if at all.

With e-textbooks and e-textbook readers, which unlike print books are
inherently accessible provided the appropriate technology is in place, it
should not be necessary to use a separate system to obtain access to books
and course materials, particularly for those whose prefer to read using
text-to-speech.  Rather, provided that the interface and underlying content
are accessible, a blind student should have the same experience as the
sighted student: instant and independent access, for the same price, and
with the same features, such as chapter headings, note taking features,
dictionary look-up, and so forth.  The problem is that vendors (such as
CourseSmart and Amazon) are not building accessibility into their services
and universities and colleges are not demanding that vendors do so.  Until
they do, blind students will be excluded from this technology, which is a
significant piece that promises to level an unequal playing field.  The
remainder of this document will explain your rights to accessible e-book
services and steps you can take to protect those rights.

*Your Rights*

*1. **Your college or university must ensure that any e-textbooks or
e-readers it offers are accessible.*

 The obligation for accessibility falls on your school, in addition to any
obligation on the company that makes the e-books or e-reader.  Colleges and
universities are required by federal law to provide students with equal
access to their programs and services under, variously, Titles II and III of
the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation
Act.  In addition, your university may be subject to state civil rights laws
or to state laws requiring that information technology be accessible.

 By providing e-textbooks or e-book readers to students, whether by offering
Kindles or Kindle books to students, offering discounts if purchasing books
through CourseSmart or other vendors, or otherwise making e-textbooks or
e-reader technology available to students on campus, a university is
engaging in a program or activity.  Accordingly, the university or college
must make that program equally accessible to everyone, including blind
students, by ensuring that the technology it is offering is accessible.

*2. **Offering accessible textbooks through the Disabled Services Office
does NOT constitute equal access.*

If your university is offering or will be offering e-textbooks to students,
providing accessible books through the Disabled Students Services office
does not constitute equal access under the law.  As noted above, e-books
offer advantages that include instant access, navigational structure, the
ability to bookmark, note taking features, and reduced costs.  Requiring
blind students to obtain books through a separate system (when not
technologically necessary) that results in a reading experience that is
inferior to that offered by the e-book is not equal access and constitutes
discrimination under the law.  The university must offer you an e-book
service that is accessible, or not contract with the vendor to offer the
service at all.

 In short, if your university is offering or considering offering e-textbook
or e-book reader services to students, it is legally obligated to ensure
that the e-textbooks and e-readers it offers will be accessible to blind
students.  Requiring a blind student to obtain access through alternative
and inferior means is not equal access where, as here, the only barrier is a
simple, technological one.

*3. **Steps you should take if your college or university is considering
e-textbooks or e-book readers*

Contact the president of your state’s NABS affiliate, if you have one, or
Terri Rupp, the current NABS president, at (707) 567-3019 or by e-mail to
HYPERLINK "mailto:nabs.president at gmail.com" nabs.president at gmail.com. They
can provide you with guidance and additional information.

If there are other blind students on campus, organize a meeting and develop
an advocacy plan.  Think about who on campus you will approach and how you
will present the issue.

Make an appointment with your university’s Information Office. Explain that
you are a blind student who wants to ensure that you will be able to
participate in the e-textbook program your school is considering, but will
be excluded if the technology adopted is inaccessible.  Remind the
Information Officer that the university is obligated under federal law to
ensure that the e-book technology it offers students is accessible.  Be
prepared to explain how you currently obtain accessible books and why that
process is not equivalent to the benefits e-books offer.

Meet with your Disabled Students Services Office, professors, and university

When you meet with personnel on campus, remember to be calm and
professional, explain your points clearly, and stick with your demand: that
you are entitled to accessible e-textbooks and e-readers.

If your request that the e-textbook or e-reader program be accessible is
turned down, contact Anne Taylor at the National Federation of the Blind at
410-659-9314 or by e-mail to  HYPERLINK "mailto:ataylor at nfb.org"
ataylor at nfb.org.
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