Manufacturers of e-readers are asking for an exception to the federal requirements that would force them to add features to make them accessible to the blind. Their argument rests on the distinction between an e-reader and a tablet. Any devices that lets people surf the Web or swap electronic messages has to be accessible to people with disabilities. Since e-readers mostly just let people read, they should be exempt, say Amazon (AMZN), Kobo (3815:JP), and Sony (6758:JP) in a letter sent to the Federal Communications Commission earlier this year.
But advocates for the disabled say that for the blind students in schools that use the devices, the distinction is meaningless.
Tablet makers haven’t been so reluctant. Apple (AAPL) in particular has gone a long way to make devices that are accessible to people with visual impairments. Apple’s mobile devices all have a built-in application called VoiceOver, which allows users to touch their screens to hear what is written and to control the device with simple gestures; there are also many Bluetooth-powered braille readers for mobile devices. Android is working on similar capabilities, but by most accounts it lags behind.
The companies acknowledge that such features could presumably be incorporated into e-readers, but doing so would turn them into tablets, à la Amazon’s Kindle Fire, which is not included in the request for an exemption. E-readers are simple, single-function devices. The pared-down feel is part of the appeal. As proof of the distinction, the companies cite a Pew study from last November showing that roughly half of American tablet owners also owned an e-reader, and vice versa. From the companies’ letter:
“Rendering ACS accessible on e-readers would require fundamentally altering the devices and it may not be possible to meet that requirement and maintain e-readers as inexpensive mobile reading devices, and yet the necessary changes, if they were made, would not yield a meaningful benefit to individuals with disabilities. It’s not merely cost but the very nature of a specialized e-reader device that is at issue.”
The FCC is now asking for feedback before it decides whether to grant the exemption, as first reported by tech blog GigaOM. Chris Danielsen, the director of public relations for the National Federation of the Blind, says that his group will oppose it. While the manufacturers may describe e-readers as simple devices, they are also pitching them to schools. Amazon has developed software to allow teachers to manage fleets of Kindle e-readers and has been giving bulk discounts to hundreds of schools that agree to use the devices, according to a report from Reuters. The federal government has said that devices used in educational settings must be accessible to people with visual impairments.
“Make the devices accessible because you have to,” says Danielsen. “They’re not just being used for pleasure reading; they are being used for education.”
Danielsen points out another curious part of the argument made by the manufacturers: They want a permanent ruling on a class of devices that has existed for only a few years. Who’s to say that e-readers won’t have made some fundamental shift even by the time the FCC has finished considering their request?
“We don’t know what features the market will demand, or what manufacturers will ultimately provide through these devices,” he says.