by Mitch Pomerantz

In early February, I was contacted by an official of the National Federation of the Blind and asked whether the American Council of the Blind would be willing to participate in a cross-disability coalition being organized to oppose a decision by Amazon regarding its newly released Kindle 2 Book Reader. For reasons which I trust will become apparent, the board of directors voted unanimously to join this effort shortly after NFB’s query. Before updating everyone on where matters stand as of mid-April, here is most of an op-ed piece, “The Kindle 2 from may lose its voice!” which was prepared and distributed to the top 25 newspapers in the country by Marlaina Lieberg, which nicely summarizes the issue at hand.

“The American Council of the Blind (ACB) … is deeply concerned about a recent development regarding Amazon’s new Kindle 2 Book Reader. On February 9, 2009, Amazon, Inc., released a new version of its popular e-book reader, the Kindle 2, which included text-to-speech technology. This technology, used by people who are blind or have print disabilities, ‘reads aloud’ text using synthetic speech. The American Council of the Blind and other organizations were encouraged by this development, since we have long advocated that manufacturers of mainstream products make their devices fully accessible to all Americans.

"Sadly, however, shortly after the Kindle 2’s release, the Authors Guild, the largest national organization representing the interests of writers, protested Amazon’s deployment of text-to-speech on the Kindle 2. They view the feature as a potential threat to the audio book market, arguing that the automated reading aloud of a book is a copyright infringement unless the copyright holder has specifically granted permission for the book to be read aloud.

"After an op-ed by Roy Blount Jr., president of the Authors Guild, appeared in the New York Times on February 24, media attention on this issue was escalated. In response to increasing pressure from authors and publishers, Amazon announced on February 27th that it would modify its system so that authors and publishers could turn off text-to-speech on a title-by-title basis. The removal of text-to-speech from the Kindle 2 is unfortunate and counter-productive. It removes yet one more mainstream and cost-effective choice from a market which already has comparatively few mainstream choices for access to the printed word.

"In response to concerns raised by ACB and other disability-related advocacy organizations, Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild, proposed a separate registration system for people with print disabilities, whereby a blind or print-disabled person would register as disabled and receive a code that would override the disabling of text-to-speech on the Kindle 2. ACB and a growing coalition of disability groups do not believe this offer is fair or reasonable. Why must people with disabilities register themselves just to have the right to read? Mr. Aiken has since responded, offering the possibility of making text-to-speech e-books available at an additional cost. Again, the consumer market with substantially fewer choices for mainstream access to books is being asked to bear the cost.

"A letter from this coalition … has been sent to the six publishers who are providing e-books for the Kindle 2, asking each of them to allow their books to be read on the device with text-to-speech and explaining that the coalition would engage in a national public education campaign in hopes of reversing any decision to disable text-to-speech in their Kindle books. The coalition plans to kick off this campaign with a protest in front of the Authors Guild headquarters in New York City on Tuesday, April 7, from noon until 2 p.m. ACB is working actively on this coalition …"

At this writing there are at least 25 organizations and agencies involved in what is being called the Reading Rights Coalition, including most of the well-known blindness organizations and agencies. Beyond this, groups such as the Learning Disabilities Association, the American Association of People with Disabilities and a wide range of other entities also joined and participated in the aforementioned protest. Melanie Brunson was one of a number of speakers on the dais and our New York affiliate had upwards of two dozen members in attendance. It is estimated that approximately 400 to 500 people attended altogether. A second public protest is scheduled to take place on April 25 and 26 at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, and we are organizing a group from the L.A. area to “show the flag” in support of this effort.

To date, at least three publishers have responded with letters ranging from sympathetic but adamantly stubborn to condescending and hostile. Coalition representatives have, in our turn, been measured yet firm in our resolve to have open access to text-to-speech on the Kindle 2. A meeting between coalition representatives (including Eric Bridges of ACB) and the Authors Guild is scheduled for May 7th. I hope to have positive news to report at our national convention.

I close with a response to a very few of our members who have asked why, if we are already willing to register in order to receive books from the National Library Service, Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic, and Bookshare, should we object to registering so as to have access to the text-to-speech feature. There are two reasons. First, it is estimated that some 15 million people would benefit, including those who are experiencing vision loss for the first time and who are highly unlikely to willingly register as “print-disabled.” This figure also includes many individuals who are not classified as print-disabled under the present statute. Hence, mandatory registration would exclude potentially millions of people who would otherwise benefit from this technology.

Second, if one of the basic tenets of ACB philosophy is the concept of equality in mainstream society, how can we argue that it is OK for blind and visually impaired people to have to register to access a mainstream product that our sighted peers can simply switch on to use? We cannot justify such a position and therefore, ACB has proudly joined the Reading Rights Coalition. The Supreme Court invalidated the notion of “separate but equal” in 1954. In 2009, separate is still not equal!

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