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Debunked: Amazon, Kobo and Sony DIDN’T Request eReaders be Exempt from Accessibility Laws

5145399499_37d9850783[1]Did you catch the story that was posted over at MobileRead yesterday  about the major ereader companies trying to get out of complying with accessibility laws?

The title is a pretty innocuous phrasing of a great big bombshell. A coalition of e-reader manufacturers consisting of Amazon, Kobo and Sony, filed a petition requesting the FCC waive its rules requiring e-readers to be accessible by people with disabilities.

I wouldn’t read too much into the petition or the uproar that will soon surround it. IMO MobileRead is misreading what the coalition is asking for in their petition.

While there is a petition for a waiver from accessibility rules, the waiver would only cover an exemption from a single regulation, not all accessibility regulations. I’ll explain the regulation in question, but first let me give you an idea just how narrowly focused this waiver really is.

If this waiver is granted it will not, for example, affect the regulations that require schools, institutions, and libraries to provide electronic equipment that can be used by the disabled.

The lawsuits won by the NFB against the Sacramento Public Library and the Philly Free Library will not be affected by this waiver. Similar lawsuits filed in the future will also not be affected; schools and libraries will still have to support the disabled. That’s not the only regulation that will be unaffected, but IMO it is one of the more important ones.


So what is Amazon et al hoping to accomplish here?

In the words of the petition, they want to be exempted from:

Sections 716 and 717 of the Communications Act of 1934, as Enacted by the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010

The latter section appears to consist only of rules about documenting compliance with the former section so I’m going to refer to them as a single regulation. According to the FCC these new regulations, which weren’t technically passed as laws, are intended to accomplish the following:

Section 716 of the Act requires that providers of advanced communications services and
manufacturers of equipment used for advanced communications services make their services and products accessible to people with disabilities, unless it is not achievable to do so. Where it is not achievable to do so, these covered entities must make their services and equipment compatible with commonly used assistive technologies. Section 717 requires new recordkeeping and enforcement procedures for these covered entities.

The new regulation was announced in 2011 and it’s not clear whether it is already in effect. This is a rather broadly written regulation that covers everything from ISPs (not kidding) to tablets to ereaders to reading apps.

Just to be clear, the ereader makers are only asking for ereaders to be exempt from this regulation; they didn’t ask for an exemption for their platforms and they didn’t ask for an exemption for their reading apps or tablets.

I am specifically bringing up reading apps and tablets because I want to point out the accessibility features that the several ereader makers have added in the past couple years. B&N, for example, announced late last year that they would add accessibility features to the Nook HD. Amazon made a similar announcement about the KFHD, and they also released a new version of the Kindle app for iPhone and iPad. I would bet that the new features were added in response to this regulation, though I cannot say for sure.

So at first glance this looks like companies trying to avoid complying with regulations, but in reality what we have here are companies that are already complying with the new rules. They just want a waiver so that ereaders won’t have to be changed in order to comply with the law.

This waiver would cover not just the branded ereaders but also the more basic devices on the market, including devices like the Nook Touch or Kindle Paperwhite which never could be updated to comply with the law (no sound). But it would not cover the most basic and cheaper devices which for example lack Wifi. The lack of communication ability in certain devices renders this regulation moot.

The coalition is asking for an exemption for ereaders because they are a unique class:

  • they have no LCD screen;
  • they have no camera;
  • they are not offered or shipped to consumers with built-in email, IM, VoIP or other similar ACS client applications and the device manufacturer does not develop ACS applications for them;
  • they are marketed to consumers as reading devices and promotional material about them does not tout the capability to access ACS.

That is an interesting argument but I am going to have to come out in opposition.

Just because the most basic ereaders lack accessibility features and just because ereaders serve a tiny niche market doesn’t mean that ereaders are special snowflakes. Furthermore, the details that define ereaders and separate them from tablets aren’t inherent in the very concept of an ereader but came from deliberate choices to make limited function machines as a way of reducing cost.

There is no technical reason preventing the ereader makers from adding accessibility features to their next models; it’s just that they don’t want to do so. Or in the case of Amazon, they don’t want to do it again.

Amazon had already moved a step in the right direction with the release of the Kindle Touch and the Kindle 3. But then they released the Paperwhite, which is essentially the Kindle Touch minus the sound (but with the better screen). It’s not clear why Amazon did that but it could prove to be a costly mistake.

In conclusion, I think the ereader makers are on the wrong side of this issue just based on existing market realities. Sure, they might get the waiver they seek, but wouldn’t it be a better idea to comply with the regulation?

If ereaders met accessibility standards then they could be sold to libraries, schools and everyone else who has to be careful what they buy.

In case you didn’t know, many of those potential customers are currently buying accessible iPads at $500 a pop. If you were an ereader maker wouldn’t you want to pursue that market with a $100 ereader? I would.

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flyingtoastr August 7, 2013 um 9:20 am

Why did Amazon (and BN) remove audio from their readers? Because audio is expensive. Not just the added cost of parts and development time for the software to go along with it, but the patents that you have to license in order to play audio. Everything, even just playback of MP3’s, has FRAND patents attached to it that drives up the cost of every device. Given that audio functions don’t seem to be a big selling point on ereaders to begin with, I can at least understand why they dropped the functionality.

And both companies can point to their tablets as a reasonably priced alternative that offers full accessibility options. No need to buy an iPad.

fjtorres August 7, 2013 um 12:31 pm

There is also the probability/likelihood of an ambulance chaser filing a nuisance class action suit.

Elf August 7, 2013 um 12:43 pm

They just want a waiver so that ereaders won’t have to be changed in order to comply with the law.

That *might* be reasonable. That depends on what features they’re trying to avoid having to provide. They very carefully don’t mention that; they just talk about how e-ink devices are marketed primarily as readers, and therefore the law shouldn’t apply to them.

They don’t mention how much they pitch the access to the online bookstores–which might be required to comply with the law. They don’t mention how strongly they mention wifi vs 3g features. They very definitely don’t mention any hint of who has difficulty with the devices now, and would be able to use them better if the mandated accessibility were provided.

They’re doing a lot of "this would only help a few people and it would cost more for everyone so we shouldn’t have to do it" and "but we didn’t MAKE our devices for those people" and "besides, those people can get what they need from someone/something else." None of those are compelling arguments to avoid providing accessibility.

If they could claim, "the features required by this law are entirely useless on an e-ink reader," that would be compelling. If the law requires, for example, captioning ability for videos… yeah, a Kindle DX is not going to provide that, and adding software for it would be stupid. But if the law requires larger typefaces for web navigation–that would be useful, including to a lot of people who browse the stores; I’m not going to agree that they should be exempt from providing it because the devices are built as readers more than web-browsers.

Mary August 8, 2013 um 8:28 am

I would be inclined to let the lack of sound go in basic Kindle and Paperwhite since it is available for the Fire. However, the ability to enlarge the font for the menus would go a long way in providing accessibility for many.

porchgreg August 8, 2013 um 5:06 pm

E-readers have the potential to give blind folks access to the same books everyone else has accessd to. But Amazon makes the kindle inaccessible to the blind and they prevent folks who make readers specifically for the blind from being able to play kindle format materials. This is immoral and stupid, and illegal, but they seek a waiver to continue this. Obviously you have no idea of the hurdles the blind and visually impaired face and Amazon doesn’t care. This is a VERY BIG DEAL.

Vikarti Anatra August 8, 2013 um 11:09 pm

They tried to make TTS available with earlier kindles.
Author’s Guild went nuts about this.

And, apparently, it’s not ok for amazon to make another kindle with TTS which will be sold to only certified blind people. It’s like everybody have this feauture(even if regular users mostly don’t use it) or nobody.

iOS version of Kindle now uses system-native assistive feature, including native TTS so Author’s Guild now has Apple to blame and not Amazon

Elf August 8, 2013 um 5:14 pm

Porchgreg, we’re not sure yet what features are involved here. While I entirely agree that Kindles should have speech-based navigation for visually handicapped readers, that may not be the kind of accessibility feature this law requires. (Probably isn’t; this law deals with "advanced communication services," whatever those are.)

It’ll take researching the law and other types of technology to find out what features Amazon, Kobo and Sony are trying to avoid supplying in their e-ink readers. (Wonder why Barnes & Noble isn’t involved? Might be worth finding out if there’s a feature B&N offers that the others don’t want to bother with.)

Donna W. Hill September 8, 2013 um 11:29 am

23 disability rights organizations recently filed an opposition to this request for waiver. Internet access is one of the issues — you can’t download the eBooks without it, and some eReaders advertise functionality that allows people to share on Facebook, indicating that the companies themselves see internet access as a co-primary purpose of the device.

As a blind novelist whose book is on all eBook formats, and a writer who would like to review books, I find the accessibility issues extremely limiting & frustrating. The truth of the matter is that only 5% of books-magazines in the US are available in accessible formats. How well do you think you would do in the job market, if you only had access to 5% of reading material? Website accessibility isn’t much better. Fortunately, this site allows me to leave a comment, but that’s not always the case. Even online contact forms for Congress vary greatly in their accessibility.

Amazon’s press releases about their massive strides towards accessibility are designed to delude the sighted public. Those of us who have tried to use their products understand only too well how substandard they are. Congress has passed law after law for decades indicating that the nation wants equal access, but bullies like Amazon drag their feet, claiming that accessibility isn’t necessary and won’t help us anyway. It’s insulting.

Craig October 2, 2013 um 5:13 pm

As a blind person I can tell you the author’s guild believing the ability to use TTS to read ebooks would compete with audio books is blatantly absurd, it’s like going from grainy old black and white TV straight to 1080 HD. I’ve never seen HD obviously, though I’ve seen shows in B&W when I had sight but the analogy stands. I’m presently in the process of replacing my ebook versions of the Dresden Files, which I bought because the audio version wasn’t available for books 5 onward from Audible UK at the time and I refused to import the CDs, with the versions now available on Audible simply because of the enormous difference. If companies want to produce devices with no sound I have no trouble with my inability to use such devices, I’d consider that a case of being impossible to adapt the device, but with the varied number of sight conditions and a globally ageing population as life expectancies in the developed world rise the ability to change font size and colour, as well ideally as background colour if the display mechanism supports this, is going to be a significant feature for many people. Don’t discount older people from technology, programmers from the 70’s are very likely today’s pensioners after all and the number of tech savvy persons in the 50+ age bracket will only rise.

David December 18, 2013 um 9:59 pm

I recently purchased the e-book "Strategic IT Accessibility: Enabling the Organization" by Jeff Kline, from Kobo. The ebook was in the EPUB format, which means it is in an accessible text format. However, I had to download the Kobo Desktop Windows e-reader to read the book. Although the e-book is in an accessible EPUB format, the Kobo Desktop reader appears to convert the text into a graphical screen display. I then have to perform an OCR scan to convert the
screen image back into a text format. This process is extremely time consuming and
unproductive. So, accessibility experts, who are very knowledgeable, promote the importance of accessibility, but even those books are not made accessible to blind consumers. I know there is push back on making tablet e-readers accessible, but there is absolutely no reason why a desktop e-reader app should not be accessible. Especially when the e-book is in an EPUB accessible text format to start with.

Amazon, Kobo and Sony petition FCC to exempt e-readers from accessibility laws — Tech News and Analysis

Nate Hoffelder December 18, 2013 um 10:47 pm

For that title, I would go to the Kobo website and try to download it from there. You should be able to get a DRMed ebook which could be opened in Adobe DE or a compatible reading app of your choice.

FCC Extends Accessibility Waiver for Kindle, Kobo eBook Readers ⋆ Ink, Bits, & Pixels February 2, 2015 um 5:29 pm

[…] Naturally this presents a problem for ebook readers, given that most do not offer TTS. Those same ereaders also lack the verbal cues required to make their menus usable by the visually disabled. This lead Amazon, Sony, and Kobo to ask for a waiver in August 2013. […]

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