Objecting to Accessibility Weaseling

Last week, the National Federation of the Blind and 22 organizations serving people with disabilities filed detailed objections to a petition from a group of makers of e-reader devices led by Amazon to be exempted from accessibility requirements under the relatively new Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act. Benetech was a proud endorser of these objections (under our legal organizational name of Beneficent Technology, Inc.).

You might ask: why would an organization that in many ways provides a competitive alternative to e-readers object to e-readers being exempted from accessibility requirements? Wouldn't that create more demand for our Bookshare online library?

It sure would create more demand for Bookshare in the future, but our primary goal is not to sustain Bookshare, although we will as long as Bookshare is needed. Our primary goal is to ensure that people with disabilities get equal access to the books and content they need for education, employment, leisure and social inclusion. We think the best long-term way to solve this equal access problem is, well, equal access. We think that people with print disabilities should be able to get their books the same way people without disabilities get them. And, increasingly, that means through inexpensive e-readers like the Amazon Kindle.

People with print disabilities are the most natural customers in the world for digital versions of books. It is supremely ironic that they have been systematically locked out of that content over the last decade through: 
  • collateral damage: technology designed to defeat piracy stopping accessibility technology,
  • rights confusion: publishers turning off text-to-speech access because of authors' claims (which I think are pretty bogus) that these are covered by audio rights, not print rights, and
  • active neglect:  leading example is Amazon continually committing to accessibility and then leaving it out of most new Kindle products

Betsy Beaumon, the general manager of Bookshare, has coined the label Born Accessible.  She wants to see every piece of content that is born digital be born accessible. We all want the same ebook that people without disabilities buy (sorry, I mean license) to work perfectly well for people who are blind, physically disabled or dyslexic. If we and the publishing industry succeed in this, then libraries like Bookshare will gradually move to filling the same kind of secondary role that public libraries fulfill for the general public: access to books for those too poor to purchase them, or for those who need to do research and don't care to purchase every book they consult.

That's why we're happy to stand in solidarity with NFB and our peers in the disability and accessibility worlds. If this attempt by Amazon and their peers to weasel out of accessibility requirements built into U.S. civil rights laws succeeds, people with disabilities will be yet again be denied equality.


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