By Kristina M. Launey

E-readers should be great tools to provide access to individuals with visual disabilities due to their ability to change font sizes and be compatible with screen readers.  In theory at least, if not always in practice, as evidenced by various cases the US DOJ, National Federation of the Blind (NFB), and the American Council of the Blind (ACB), have brought and settled over the past few years against universities, school systems, and libraries involving e-readers that are allegedly inaccessible to individuals with vision impairments.

In 2009, the NFB and the ACB sued five universities alleging the universities’ pilot programs to distribute textbooks via e-reader violated the ADA because the e-reader’s text-to-speech capabilities were very limited.  Specifically, the e-reader device could read books aloud but did not read aloud the menu or other features.  Consequently, blind students could not turn on the text-to-speech feature, let alone navigate the device, without assistance.  The parties settled in 2010 for an agreement that the universities would use devices that are accessible to individuals who are blind or have low vision if they chose to deploy e-book readers in the future. 

In June 2010, the DOJ and the US Department of Education wrote a letter to university presidents cautioning against requiring the use of e-book devices in a classroom setting due to these same accessibility concerns. 

While e-readers have advanced in accessibility capability in the past few years, organizations cannot assume all e-readers are fully accessible.  Those that choose to use the technology must carefully choose e-readers that are in fact fully accessible.  The DOJ and NFB are still watching.  In January 2012, the NFB asked the DOJ to investigate a school district’s proposed acquisition of an allegedly inaccessible e-reader device. 

Most recently – just last week – the DOJ announced that it and the NFB reached a settlement with the Sacramento (California) Public Library Authority to remedy alleged violations of the ADA due the library’s use of inaccessible electronic reader devices in a patron lending program.  The settlement agreement provides that the library will not acquire any more inaccessible e-readers for patron use (i.e., lacking text-to-speech functions or the ability to access menus through audio or tactile options), that the library will acquire at least 18 accessible e-readers, and that the library will train its staff on the ADA. 

While many of the specific cases discussed above involved public entities subject to Title II of the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act, the cautionary tale is equally applicable to private institutions – such as libraries, universities, primary and secondary schools – that are subject to Title III.  If you choose to use e-readers, make sure they are fully accessible.