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Accessibility Concerns Delay $30M Amazon E-Book Contract in N.Y.C.

Tablet in hands.jpg

Cross-posted from Marketplace K-12

New York City schools delayed a vote this week on awarding a $30 million contract to Amazon to develop an online e-book 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 e-books and digital content, and whether blind and visually impaired educatorrs 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 e-books that way cannot read tables, skip around in the text, or know what illustrations are in them.

The proposed agreement between Amazon and the 1.1 million-student district would create a first-of-its-kind online presence for procurement with many capabilities, as teachers and principals in city schools make purchasing decisions. Educators could recommend and rate the materials they buy via the "storefront," much as Amazon consumers do. Students also would be able to rate content. Teachers could view what content their students are accessing, and track their use. Content created by teachers could be uploaded and published, too.

The vote on the agreement, originally scheduled to take place on Aug. 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 e-book 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.

For its part, the federation called off a planned protest outside the Aug. 26 meeting once the vote was delayed.

Compatibility Issues With Screen Reader Software

In a letter expressing his organization's concerns, Riccobono explained the challenge of the custom Kindle format to screen readers used by people with print disabilites:

[E]ven using an accessible device and an accessible e-reading software platform, a blind reader attempting to work with a Kindle e-book that is anything more than a simple novel will encounter significant accessibility barriers because Amazon's proprietary process of converting the e-book 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, according to the organization. In his letter, Riccobono goes on to state that limitations to the Kindle file format—not the app—would still mean that a blind student or teacher would be unable to:

  • Read tables;
  • Skip to the previous or next block or paragraph of text;
  • Skip to the previous or next hyperlink or heading;
  • Read the "alt text" labels on photos, illustrations, or graphics, i.e., know what the photos,graphics, or illustrations in the book are;
  • Move reliably between footnotes/endnotes and where they are indicated in the text.

Amazon has not responded to a request from Education Week about any problems that the proprietary Kindle e-book software presents, or to answer questions about how responding to these concerns might change its proposal for city schools.

The city schools' contracts selection committee unanimously chose Amazon's proposal from a field of 14 submitted by various vendors. Amazon would be responsible for underwriting the cost of developing the secure web platform under the terms of the proposed agreement. Purchases from the platform could reach $4.3 million in the first year; $8.6 million in the second; and $17.2 million in the third year of the contract, which comes with a two-year renewal option.

MOOC Settles Accessibility Case

The move to delay signing the Amazon contract comes four months after another high-profile challenge to an ed-tech provider to make its product accessible.

In April, edX, an online learning platform, entered into a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice over allegations that the organization's digital content was not accessible to individuals with disabilities, in violation of federal law.

The allegations were initially raised after a review by the department concluded that edX's MOOCs (massive open online courses), and website were not fully accessible to people who are deaf, blind, or have other disabilities. The deficits in accessibility meant that the online provider's practices ran afoul of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

The four-year agreement calls for edX to make sure its website, mobile applications, and learning management system software—through which online courses are offered—are fully accessible within 18 months. It also requires the organization to ensure that its content management system, called Studio—which edX makes available to entities creating online courses—is fully accessible and supports authoring and publishing of accessible content.

Librarian Holly Peele contributed to this story.

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