Braille Monitor                                             October 2015

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Preliminary Victory for New York City’s Blind Students: City School System Backs Away from Amazon Distribution and Content Deal

by Chris Danielsen

Chris DanielsenFrom the Editor: Chris Danielsen is the director of Public Relations for the National Federation of the Blind, a lawyer, and a person who is able to tell a story involving significant technical detail and keep it interesting. Here is what he has to say about our ongoing struggles to see that students get the materials they need to compete in the classroom:

On August 25, 2015, the National Federation of the Blind scored a preliminary victory in our long-running battle with Amazon Digital Services Inc., which has been trying to push inaccessible content into America’s public schools and institutions of higher education for over half a decade. Our victory came in the form of a decision by the New York City Department of Education (DOE) to back away from a proposed $30 million contract with Amazon. The widely-publicized proposal would have seen the company build a digital storefront for the school system and provide the city’s schools with e-textbooks and other electronic educational materials. The DOE’s Panel for Educational Policy, which has the final say on such contracts, had scheduled a vote on the deal for August 26. But, after learning of the Federation’s long-standing concerns about the accessibility of Amazon’s e-textbooks and its touted content distribution system, known as WhisperCast, and with the threat of blind protesters picketing the meeting, the vote was very publicly postponed, with little indication of when the contract would be considered again. Federation leaders are now hopeful that this high-profile setback will finally bring Amazon to the table for discussions that will resolve the issues that currently prevent blind students from fully and equally accessing educational content provided by the Seattle-based company.

Since 2007 Amazon has been selling a family of ebook readers and applications, along with content to read on them, under the brand name Kindle. Blind Americans have been asking Amazon to make its Kindle products accessible since 2008, shortly after they were first released. Dr. Marc Maurer, Immediate Past President of the National Federation of the Blind; Dr. George Kerscher, the creator of the first ebooks used by the blind (or anyone else, for that matter); and others met with Amazon officials to urge them to make the Kindle platform a model for equal access to ebooks so that at last the information playing field would become truly level for blind people. In 2009 Amazon did introduce the first Kindle devices with text-to-speech output, but blind users could not independently access this feature. Furthermore, under pressure from the Authors Guild, Amazon allowed authors and publishers to turn off text-to-speech for specific books. When Amazon began peddling Kindles to institutions of higher education, the NFB brought suit and filed complaints against several of these institutions. These claims prompted a June 29, 2010, joint letter from the US Departments of Education and Justice warning higher education institutions not to purchase inaccessible technology. A follow-up “Frequently Asked Questions” document (known as an FAQ) from the Department of Education made it clear that the prohibition against the purchase of inaccessible technology also applied to libraries and K-12 schools.

Federation members took our concerns directly to Amazon’s door in December of 2012 with an informational protest outside the company’s Seattle headquarters. Following the protest, Amazon added some accessibility features to its Kindle app for iPhones and other Apple devices in May of 2013. Blind readers can now access Kindle content with VoiceOver on these devices, regardless of whether or not the publisher has allowed text-to-speech output. However, while the Kindle app is acceptable if one is merely reading for pleasure, its features are not robust enough to be used in the educational setting—more on the particular barriers that still remain below.

The National Federation of the Blind has made its concerns about remaining accessibility barriers in the education context clear to Amazon and to the public from the very day the more accessible Kindle for iOS app was released. Moreover, we have publicly observed many times that Whispercast, the distribution system that allows teachers to provide content directly to students’ devices—including notes, highlights, bookmarks, and other instructor- or student-created content—remains inaccessible, meaning that blind students do not have the same opportunity to interact with their teachers and peers as sighted students. The United States Department of Education affirmed in a May 2013 letter, in response to questions from attorney Daniel F. Goldstein—who has represented the Federation in this and many other matters—that inaccessible software with the feature set of Whispercast is not acceptable in the classroom under federal law. Despite all this, Amazon is still seeking to have Kindle ebooks and devices, Whispercast, and Amazon storefronts deployed in K-12 schools and institutions of higher education, and many school districts and colleges across the United States have already adopted these technologies. Indeed, Amazon boasts that its technology is in 130 of the nation’s 250 largest school districts.

Recently we learned that the New York City Department of Education was considering a contract with Amazon. The New York City school system is the largest in the nation, with eighteen hundred schools and over a million students, around a thousand of whom are blind, as well as some blind faculty members. Many other school districts would likely follow the system’s lead if it were to adopt Amazon’s technology. Accordingly, we responded swiftly. On August 7, 2015, President Mark Riccobono sent a letter to the chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, Carmen Fariña, and the chairperson of its Panel on Educational Policy, Vanessa Leung, outlining our objections to the proposed deal. A copy of the letter was also sent to Commissioner Victor Calise, who heads the New York City Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities. Three days later, President Riccobono received an email from Ms. Leung requesting further information. Here is his response:

Dear Ms. Leung, Chancellor Fariña, and Commissioner Calise:

Thank you for Ms. Leung’s August 10, 2015, email response to our August 7 letter. We appreciate that the panel is engaging in discussions and seeking additional information about the proposed contract between NYC DOE [New York City Department of Education] and Amazon prior to the August 26 meeting.

We write to clarify the specific aspect of the proposed arrangement between DOE and Amazon about which we are most troubled: the limitations of Kindle ebooks.

Increasingly, mainstream publishers deliver digital files to booksellers like Amazon in an ePub3 format that allows a print-disabled person using screen-reader software to intelligibly read tables, read mathematical symbols correctly and mathematical equations in correct syntactical order, and take advantage of markup and structural data to navigate from, say, one paragraph to the next or from one heading to the next. Unfortunately, Amazon takes ePub3 content and, due to the limitations of its MobiPocket converter, strips the ePub3 files of this rich reading experience, rendering them accessible only to the sighted reader. The upshot is that, even using an accessible device and an accessible e-reading software platform, a blind reader attempting to work with a Kindle ebook that is anything more than a simple novel will encounter significant accessibility barriers because Amazon’s proprietary process of converting the ebook file from ePub3 format to Kindle format has scrubbed the file of the meta-data needed by the blind person’s assistive technology.

The best Kindle reading experience for a blind student or teacher is using the Kindle for iOS app on an iPad. However, because of the limitations to the Kindle file format (not the app), the blind student or teacher would be unable to:

Barriers are explained in greater detail at EPUBTest’s “Fundamental Accessibility Tests: Kindle for iPad”.1

Unlike the ePub3 file format that publishers deliver to Amazon and other distributors, the Kindle ebooks file format does not support Math Markup Language (MathML), a markup language for mathematical and scientific content developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) that, among other things, makes digital mathematical and scientific notations accessible to screen readers.2

In sum, Kindle books are wholly unsuited for the rigors of the classroom, whether in a purely verbal subject, such as English, or a STEM subject requiring mathematical and scientific notation, such as biology. By contrast, there are many other distributors that, unlike Amazon, sell digital books in the ePub3 format used by major publishers. These ePub3-formatted books provide blind and other print-disabled students and faculty the same rich reading experience as their nondisabled peers.

We trust this letter demonstrates how Amazon’s lack of regard for accessibility when creating Kindle ebook content would leave blind students and teachers far behind their sighted peers if NYC DOE chooses to proceed with the proposed contract with Amazon. We hope you will take these concerns seriously, and we remain eager to sit down with you and other panel members or other DOE personnel to discuss these issues further. Please respond to Mehgan Sidhu, Esq., General Counsel to the National Federation of the Blind, at (410) 659-9314 extension 2314 or <msidhu@nfb.org>, to inform us if you are amenable to such a meeting.

Sincerely,

Mark A. Riccobono, President
National Federation of the Blind

After the August 13 letter several days passed without further word from NYC DOE, and with the vote of the Panel for Educational Policy pending on August 26, President Riccobono felt that a more aggressive plan of action was needed. This plan consisted of two components: a protest outside the building where the panel meeting would take place, and direct participation by blind people, such as students and parents of blind children, in the public comment portion of the meeting itself. Email blasts went out to affiliate leaders in the New York City area and to other supporters. A social media campaign was also begun by the Federation’s new coordinator of social media and member engagement, Danielle Trevino, anchored by a blog post on the Voice of the Nation’s Blind, the Federation’s official blog. Here is the full text of the blog post:

We Must Stop the Amazon Fail!

Once again, Amazon Inc. is trying to push its inaccessible technology into public schools, despite our years of advocacy, and clear warnings against the adoption of inaccessible technology by the United States Departments of Education and Justice. In this case, blind students throughout the New York City public school system will be denied an equal education if the city goes through with a proposed $30 million deal under which Amazon would construct an electronic storefront for New York City schools and become the primary provider of electronic textbooks and related educational materials for students. Unfortunately, Amazon ebooks inhibit the ability of blind students to access complex material like tables and equations and the ability to easily navigate through a book, among other significant accessibility barriers. We have informed New York City Department of Education officials of these issues in two separate letters, sent on August 7 and August 13, but so far we have received no acceptance of our offer to meet with these officials, nor any firm indication that the proposed deal will be altered or scrapped.

Since we have not been offered a meaningful reply to our concerns or an in-person meeting with relevant officials, we have decided to take more public action. The school system’s Panel for Educational Policy, which has the final say on the deal, will meet next Wednesday, August 26, to vote on it, and blind Americans will be there in force to let the panel members and the public know that this is a bad deal for blind students and faculty and, therefore, for New York City schools. We plan to tell the panel that a vote for this deal is an outrageous act of deliberate discrimination against blind students and an equally outrageous and deliberate violation of federal law. Following the demonstration we will enter the auditorium where the meeting is taking place and participate respectfully so that we can encourage the Educational Policy Panel to do the right thing and shut down this “Amazon Fail!”

If you would like to attend the protest, you can get more details by viewing our Facebook event, which we hope you will also take the time to share with others. If you are not able to attend the protest, you can still get involved by posting on social media using the following information.

Be sure to tweet the New York City public schools (@NYCSchools), the mayor of New York (@NYCMayorsOffice), and Amazon (@Amazon) to tell them that blind children deserve equal access to e-textbooks. Use the hashtag #AmazonFail when you tweet so that our collective posts can all be found in one place.

It is imperative that we protect the rights of blind students in New York City and throughout America by stopping this deal and sending a clear message to the New York City public schools, to Amazon, and to school systems across America that we will not tolerate blind children being treated like second-class citizens in our nation’s classrooms. Help stop the #AmazonFail!

That was our blog entry. Other protest plans were made: chants were composed, buses to transport members to the protest site were arranged, and signs from previous Kindle-related protests were removed from storage. But on August 25, President Riccobono received an official response from the school system. The text of this letter follows:

Dear Mr. Riccobono,

Thank you for your letter on August 13th. We take your concerns about the accessibility of Amazon ebooks seriously. In particular, you stated, among other things, that readers with visual impairments working with an Amazon ebook containing illustrations, graphics, or mathematical notations would not have access to such information because it is not programmed to be accessible through assistive technology.

The DOE continues to evaluate the accessibility features of Amazon’s services and other contractors. Please send us your best practices on procuring and incorporating electronic and information technology in the classroom to help us with our evaluation. It is worth noting that the procurement of digital books is only one aspect of the DOE’s long-term technology vision for our schools. At the moment, DOE has no storefront for e-content, which is a detriment to our students and our learning communities. The goal of the contract with Amazon is to utilize a web platform for the distribution of e-content, including assistive technology, to schools. Regardless of which contractor creates the online distribution tool for the DOE, the DOE will retain its ability to procure content from different vendors. We appreciate any guidance NFB could share in regards to our goal.

In the meantime, the vote regarding the proposed Amazon agreement scheduled for the August meeting of the Panel for Educational Policy will be postponed while we continue to consider all our options.

We look forward to working with you.

Sincerely,

Ursulina Ramirez, Chief of Staff, New York City Department of Education
cc: Vanessa Leung, Panel for Educational Policy Chair
Victor Calise, Commissioner, New York City Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities

This letter did not specifically respond to our request for a meeting with NYC DOE officials. However, President Riccobono judged it a sufficiently promising gesture to justify postponing the protest. He issued a statement saying as much, while making it clear that the National Federation of the Blind stands ready to take further action if needed. Quoting fully, he said, “The National Federation of the Blind is firmly committed to the principle that blind students must have equal access to the materials used by their sighted peers if they are to receive an equal education and live the lives they want. That is why we have expressed our strong opposition to the deal with Amazon as currently proposed. While we stand ready to take any and all steps necessary to protect the rights of New York City’s blind students, we are now hopeful, in light of the cancellation of tomorrow’s vote on this deal, that we can resolve the issue through an amicable and productive dialogue with school officials. We continue to urge everyone concerned about the rights of students who are blind or who have print disabilities to contact Chancellor Carmen Fariña and let her know that equal access and equal education are one and the same.”

While the picket outside the meeting location was dropped from our strategy, it was decided that a representative should still speak to the panel during the public comment portion of the meeting and that blind people from the New York City area should still attend. Maria Garcia, a Brooklyn parent of a blind child, was permitted to speak to the panel before any other business was conducted. Her prepared remarks follow:

Good evening. My name is Maria Garcia. My family and I are longtime residents of West Harlem. I currently serve as the president of the Parents of Blind Children of New York and have served on the boards of the Citywide Council on Special Education and the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children. I also serve on the Executive Board of the NYS Commission for the Blind as the governor’s appointee.

Most important, I am the parent of a wonderful daughter who happens to be blind and has Cerebral Palsy. Elora is 18 and attends the Bronx Collaborative High School. Both as a parent and representative of parents of blind children in New York, I have seen how critical decisions like the Amazon contract are to the academic and future success or failure of our blind children. I want to thank the commissioner and panel for postponing today's vote on the contract to investigate accessible options. My daughter, like the more than one thousand blind students in this district, has tremendous potential to live a meaningful and productive life and strong ambitions of what she might accomplish. But when a school employs inaccessible technology, the opportunities for our blind kids shrink as the hurdles to education increase. At its best, Amazon's e-content would mean a blind student like my daughter would be unable to navigate through a book and access critical information available to her sighted peers. At its worst, Amazon's e-textbooks exclude blind students altogether. When our children with disabilities are excluded, they fall behind not only in their academic growth, but in their own belief about their abilities as equal members of school and society. They internalize themselves as second-class citizens. This need not be so. The technology exists and is commercially available to make these books and technology accessible and to put our blind children on an equal footing. 

New York City's DOE has the largest population of blind students in the nation. The impact of your decision is tremendous. As you consider how to move forward, this administration faces the choice to entrench barriers that push our district's blind students and other students with disabilities further behind or to choose to serve as an example to uphold the value of students with disabilities and your legal obligation to provide equal educational opportunities. I hope you will choose the latter course and be a role model to districts around the country and know the NY Parents of Blind Children stand ready to assist in that effort.

President Riccobono quickly responded to Ms. Ramirez’s August 25 letter with two detailed pieces of correspondence outlining the accessibility barriers inherent to Kindle content. Both letters are reproduced below. Please note: Both pieces of correspondence refer to a chart comparing the accessibility of Amazon’s ebooks with those of another provider. The chart was included with both letters, but revisions to it were made after the first letter to incorporate information about access to math content. Only the second, more complete chart is reproduced at the end of the second letter.

August 26, 2015
VIA EMAIL
Ursalina Ramirez, Chief of Staff
New York City Department of Education
52 Chambers Street
New York, NY 10007
<URamirez@schools.nyc.gov>

Re: Proposed Contract Between the New York City Department of Education and Amazon Digital Services Inc.

Dear Ms. Ramirez:

Thank you for your letter of yesterday’s date. You note that the Department of Education will retain the right to order books elsewhere, but it appears to us that teachers and school administrators wishing to buy books and take advantage of deep discounts would be inclined to buy Amazon’s content through the DOE storefront. Regardless of the original source of the ebooks or econtent, if DOE distributes the book through Amazon’s current distribution software, the student or teacher will receive content with the same accessibility shortcomings as Amazon’s Kindle content.

Amazon’s distribution mechanism converts all content to Amazon’s proprietary Kindle format, including accessible ePub3 content provided by publishers or accessible instructional materials provided by a teacher. While Amazon’s converter accepts ePub and other accessible content, it locks the distributed content into the Kindle format. Unlike many other vendors, Amazon’s current distribution platform does not permit “side loading” that would enable non-proprietary formats to be presented in the reading system. As a result, otherwise accessible content, when channeled through Amazon’s distribution system, will have the shortcomings described in the attached document, or worse.

The attached document shows the problems with two Kindle formats in two charts. The first chart addresses Amazon’s Print Replica formatted ebooks, books that even when used by a blind student on the optimum device, the Kindle Fire, still have significant deficits compared to the reading experience for the sighted student. The second addresses the standard Kindle format when the blind student uses iOS hardware, the optimum device for this format, and again results in inferior access to information. To demonstrate that there are commercially available alternatives that deliver to the blind student a more equivalent reading experience, the document shows that the features unavailable to blind students in the Kindle formats are available to all students in ePub3 books on the VitalSource platform. VitalSource is by no means the only choice.

With respect to best practices, we can be of greater assistance if we have a more in-depth meeting to explore what the DOE wants to offer all students. In broad terms, ePub3, a set of HTML standards, includes accessibility standards that represent all that technology can currently offer to students with print disabilities, such as the ability to read MathML, tables, and a rich markup to allow quick navigability. There are a number of web-based readers that are accessible and can make available all of the content features present in ePub3. Some, like Kobo and the Adobe Digital Editions reader, rely on the open-source software of the Readium Foundation that fully supports ePub3. Others, like Apple, use their own distribution format, but they also support the reading of other formats such as ePub3. Apple has the additional advantage of offering an authoring tool targeted at education; iBook Author is designed to empower authors and faculty to create ePub3 content.

If you wish to learn further on this topic, I note that James English of the New York Public Library is on the Readium Board of Directors; thus, he may be able to acquaint you further with the pros and cons of various readers that use the Readium software to deliver ePub3 to the reader. I have never spoken with Mr. English, but have been advised that he is extremely knowledgeable. For more information about best practices around ePub3, you can obtain “Accessible EPUB 3, Best Practices for Creating Universally Usable Content,” a free book by Matt Garrish from O’Reilly Publishers, <http://shop.oreilly.com/product/0636920025283.do>.

Obviously, the web platform for ordering or selecting books must also meet WCAG 2.0 AA standards.

Finally, you raise the question of distribution. Again, there are a number of accessible choices. For example, VitalSource, a member of Readium, has a distribution system that includes the ability to share notes or bookmarks, enabling the teacher to give assignments and raise questions or comments across the class. I would also note that VitalSource integrates with other portals, such as Blackboard.

By contrast, here is what happens with content loaded on to Whispercast for distribution. NFB tried loading an accessible ePub3 book on to a Whispercast account but was unsuccessful because ePub3 is not a format supported by Whispercast. The only way to get this accessible title to read would have been to convert it into Amazon’s Kindle file format, which would have stripped it of all markup, as described in the table in the attached chart that addresses reflowable text. NFB also uploaded the attached chart as a fully accessible .docx format document to Whispercast. The result: a blind user could not tell there were tables, could not know what column and row was being read, and, since the alt tags were gone, could not know whether the cell contained a check mark, an X, or a caution sign. Finally, NFB uploaded a .pdf file that it knew to be accessible (NFB’s annual report). On an iOS device, Voiceover stated “This file format is not supported.” On the Kindle Fire, nothing was vocalized at all—it simply could not be read.

We are not endorsing any given product. To the contrary, we continue to request a true dialogue where we can give you information about the accessibility of different features that you identify as pedagogically important. I am confident that when selecting Amazon for final consideration, you were unaware of the accessibility barriers present in Kindle content—barriers that the National Federation of the Blind knows all too well. I am equally confident that a meeting would allow us to help you identify the people, resources, and products that can help you get a solution that will serve all of your students optimally.

Sincerely,

Mark A. Riccobono, President
National Federation of the Blind

 

Inaccessibility of Kindle Ebooks
Subject: From Mark Riccobono: NFB addendum email to New York City Department of Education

Please see below and attached.

Ms. Ramirez:

In our letter of Wednesday’s date, we excluded reference to the ability to read math correctly (to read presentations in MathML) from the charts we attached, because we had not had the opportunity to re-confirm that VitalSource books have that capacity. Since that time, we have received the following statement from VitalSource: “We support MathML in all clients equally (browser, Mac, Windows, Android, Kindle Fire, Chrome Book, iOS). Specifically: VitalSource uses the evolving standard MathJax javascript framework to renderMathML. MathJax fully supports accessibility including ChromeVox, Texthelp, JAWS, and MathPlayer with more player support planned. We handle the implementation internally. In other words, publishers just have to provide valid MathML markup. VitalSource’s platform handles the rest. When inquiries from end users, or institutions are received by VitalSource, we have the capability to test markup and work with the publisher in implementing and enhancing their MathML titles.” As we have earlier stated, there is no Kindle format that correctly reads MathML. Please consider this an addendum to our information from Wednesday.

Mark A. Riccobono, President
National Federation of the Blind

To further elaborate on the inaccessibility of the Kindle ebook experience for blind students, the tables sent to Ms. Ramirez are reprinted here:

Inaccessibility of Kindle Ebooks

Compiled by the National Federation of the Blind, August 2015

Amazon currently offers ebooks and econtent in two formats: Print Replica and reflowable text. The following two charts identify accessibility barriers for academic reading.

Inaccessibility of Kindle Print Replica Ebooks

Typically, Amazon’s electronic textbooks are only available in Kindle Print Replica format and cannot be accessed as reflowable text. The most accessible experience available from Amazon for reading Print Replica books is with the Kindle Fire. Even so, a blind student who follows the instructions provided by the Fire will be unable to read a Kindle Print Replica book at all. A technologically sophisticated adult can force the reading experience, but it is a difficult, inconsistent, and buggy reading experience that would cause a blind student to read far less efficiently than other students.

The following chart assumes that a blind student has managed to get the Kindle Fire to read the Print Replica book. The chart describes those tasks that a sighted student will be able to perform that a blind student cannot. As a point of comparison, the chart also shows how the reading experience on VitalSource’s desktop application allows both sighted and blind students to accomplish these same tasks. 

Please Note: Traditionally, iOS is considered the most accessible platform for accessing Kindle books, but when a Print Replica book is loaded, a blind user will hear the message, “VoiceOver does not support this content,” rendering iOS unusable for Print Replica textbooks.

Features

Usable by Blind Students:
Kindle Print Replica Ebooks

Usable by Blind Students:
VitalSource Desktop Platform

Look up the meaning of
words and terms

red x - no

green check - yes

Read a text description
of a picture or graphic

red x - no

green check - yes

Highlight text

red x - no

green check - yes

Make notes

red x - no

green check - yes

Read by paragraph

red x - no3

green check - yes

Read tables

red x - no

green check - yes

Read MathML

red x - no

green check - yes

Return to highlights and notes

caution sign4

green check - yes

Read text in Braille

caution sign5

green check - yes

Determine the spelling of
a word or term

caution sign6

green check - yes

Inaccessibility of Kindle Ebooks with Reflowable Text

Amazon’s Kindle ebooks with reflowable text (text that can be sized independently of layout constraints) are most accessible on an iOS device. Even then, a blind student will encounter many significant barriers to having a reading experience equivalent to his sighted counterparts. The chart below describes activities that cannot be successfully completed by a blind student with Kindle for iOS and compares these activities to the experience of reading a textbook in the desktop VitalSource application, which is one of the ebook platforms the National Federation of the Blind knows to be accessible.

Features

Usable by Blind Students:
Kindle on iOS

Usable by Blind Students:
VitalSource Desktop

Read tables

red x - no

green check - yes

Skip to the previous or next block or paragraph of text

red x - no

green check - yes

Skip to the previous or next hyperlink or heading

red x - no

green check - yes

Read the “alt text” labels on photos, illustrations, or graphics, i.e., know what the photos, graphics, or illustrations are that appear in the book

red x - no

green check - yes

Move reliably between footnotes / endnotes and where they are indicated in the text

red x - no

green check - yes

Read MathML

red x - no

green check - yes

Highlight text

caution sign7

green check - yes

Make notes

caution sign8

green check - yes

Please Note: The preceding table focuses on the tools that are unavailable or impractical for a blind student to use with Kindle on iOS. Students are able to read basic text continuously, and by both character and word. They are also able to use bookmarks, search for terms, use the table of contents, and go directly to a specific location in the book. These features make the Kindle suitable for basic leisure reading, but without the features described in the preceding table, a blind student would be wholly unable to participate in the majority of classroom activities independently.

As mentioned earlier, the proposed deal between Amazon and the NYC DOE had attracted a good deal of publicity, owing to the size of both the deal and the NYC school system. The sudden postponement of the vote on the contract also attracted notice in the media. The New York Daily News reported on the vote’s cancellation via its website almost immediately. Although school officials had not mentioned our pending protest, we had alerted the media in the area and so the paper quickly put two and two together and contacted us for our reaction. As a result, a substantial part of President Riccobono’s statement was included in the published article, which ran under the headline “Ebooks at NYC Public Schools Leave Out Blind, Advocates Say.” Education Week, which is widely read by K-12 educators, also ran a story on the deal’s failure to sail through as expected on its Marketplace K-12 blog. Blogger Michelle Molnar wrote in part:

New York City schools delayed a vote this week on awarding a $30 million contract to Amazon to develop an online ebook storefront for educators, after advocates for blind and visually impaired individuals raised accessibility concerns.

The National Federation of the Blind is questioning whether its community would have full accessibility in the online platform that would be built for teachers and principals to order ebooks and digital content, and whether blind and visually impaired educators and students will be able to adequately use the content once it is downloaded via the Kindle file format.

"Our concern is that what we knew of the criteria for the project didn't include clear accessibility requirements in either area,” said Mark Riccobono, the president of the Federation, in a phone interview. His organization's objections to the Kindle's custom file format date to 2008, he said, because visually impaired users who access ebooks that way cannot read tables, skip around in the text, or know what illustrations are in them.

The vote on the agreement, originally scheduled to take place on August 26, has been postponed until a meeting in the fall, although no specific date has been set. "We are working closely with Amazon and community partners to ensure that all school communities—including those serving visually impaired students—will be able to take advantage of the ebook and e-content marketplace when it meets their needs," said Devora Kaye, the press secretary for the city's Department of Education, in a prepared statement.

It is unclear what will happen next in this saga, but the National Federation of the Blind remains willing to engage in constructive conversations with all parties. Watch this space for further developments.

_______________________________________________________

3. Kindle Fire instructions for reading by paragraph result in a student reading by sentence fragment. No workaround strategy has been identified.

4. Because blind users cannot highlight, the returning-to-highlights-and-notes feature could not be tested.

5. Braille can only be used with difficulty. Word wrap is not supported. Navigation of text is difficult as text is interpreted as one block per page for purposes of Braille, so paragraph markers and other separations in the text are lost.

6. As students will be required to start from the top of a page when searching for each word they are trying to spell and reading commands are inconsistent, it is technically possible but very labor and time intensive for a student to learn the spelling of a term.

7. Text cannot be selected with Braille. The word that is first highlighted when a student begins to select text is not the same word as that which she had intended to select.

8. This would be available only when text has been successfully highlighted.

9. Braille navigation is limited to the ability to move page by page, or the length of the Braille display, so a user cannot move to different paragraphs in the text easily. Paragraph breaks are not clearly displayed. The ability to move only within these smaller chunks of text hampers a blind student’s ability to skim content quickly.

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