The Annals of Government Stupidity: No Kindles for You!

|

When the good people at the Justice Department aren't wasting taxpayer dollars prosecution John Stagliano, they are wasting taxpayer dollars investigating a program allowing a small group of college students to test drive the Kindle DX—an initiative, says Amazon, that could potentially save students hundreds of dollars on exorbitantly priced textbooks. So what on Earth could these idiot bureaucrats find to fault in a pilot program designed to reduce student costs and the amounts of paper used to print textbooks? Well, say the geniuses at DoJ, a few small programs providing DXs at a few universities, both public and private, might discriminate against the blind. Seriously. The Washington Examiner's Byron York tries to explain:

From its introduction in 2007, the Kindle has drawn criticism from the National Federation of the Blind and other activist groups. While the Kindle's text-to-speech feature could read a book aloud, its menu functions required sight to operate. "If you could get a sighted person to fire up the device and start reading the book to you, that's fine," says Chris Danielsen, a spokesman for the federation. "But other than that, there was really no way to use it"…

In May 2009, Amazon announced the pilot program, under which it would provide Kindle DX readers to a few universities. It wasn't a huge deal; Princeton's plan, for example, involved three courses and a total of 51 students, and only in the fall semester of that year. University spokeswoman Emily Aronson says the program was voluntary and students could opt out of using the Kindle. "There were no students with a visual impairment who had registered for the three classes," says Aronson.
Nevertheless, in June 2009, the federation filed a complaint with the Justice Department, accusing the schools of violating the ADA. Perez and his team went to work.

"We acted swiftly to respond to complaints we received about the use of the Amazon Kindle," Perez recently told a House committee. "We must remain vigilant to ensure that as new devices are introduced, people with disabilities are not left behind."

When I was in college, it was possible to get a discounted (sometimes free) newspaper subscription, subsidized by…somebody. By the logic of DoJ, because newspapers don't talk, this was discriminatory, putting blind students at an unfair disadvantage.

The DoJ successfully pressured Arizona State to abandon the program; the rage-inducing settlement agreement can be read here. A letter harrassing Case Western University can be read here.

NEXT: Prop. 8 Supporters: We Don't Need Evidence

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. potentially save students hundreds of dollars

    Over the course of 4 or 5 years, more like thousands of dollars.

    And the convenience of not having to lug textbooks around… Man, if I had had a Kindle in college, I could have not read the assigned reading so much easier.

    1. no, it won’t save thousands and probably not 100s either. Once beyond the Eco 101 mass market books most text books are expensive not because of the paper or delivery/storage but because it is expensive to write, edit, referee, re-edit and eventually publish what are generally low volume books.

      1. Publishers made very little money off the more specialized books, like graduate level textbooks. Why so many of them are published by academic presses, and not commerical presses. Yes, they are expensive, rabble rabble rabble, but you have a small production runs (i.e. higher per-item costs, the flip side to economies of scale) in addition to the same amount of editing, rewriting, refereeing that a more mass-market textbook would entail. Think about it, why do more specialized textbooks have one new edition every ten years, rather than the continual rewrites that mass market books have? Because it’s not worth it to rewrite the specialized textbooks, even though they’re the textbooks that should be rewritten for new, cutting-edge research. Even the widely used graduate level textbooks (like, showing my bias here, Jackson’s Classical Electromagnetics for physicists) make the publishing companies relatively little money after costs are factored in, even 30 to 40 years later.

        That we even have such a diverse selection of specialized and graduate level textbooks is a miracle of capitalism that if there is a market, people will try to fill the market. Don’t kill the goose that laid the golden egg.

        Furthermore, don’t knock having hard copies of books. One of the best way to judge a man is to look at his book collection.

        1. Bah, it’s Classical Electrodynamics. It’s blue and it makes every physicists’ life hell, that’s the important part.

          1. I still have nightmares about the problem sets in Jackson.

      2. Nuclear Energy (Kindle Edition)
        by Zeynel Alkan (Contributor), 3.4 out of 5 stars
        Digital List Price: $7,790.00 Kindle Price: $6,234.00 & includes international wireless delivery via Amazon Whispernet
        You Save: $1,556.00 (20%)

        —-

        Books aren’t necessarily cheap just because they are on Kindle.

      3. Nuclear Energy (Kindle Edition)
        by Zeynel Alkan (Contributor), 3.4 out of 5 stars
        Digital List Price: $7,790.00 Kindle Price: $6,234.00 & includes international wireless delivery via Amazon Whispernet
        You Save: $1,556.00 (20%)

        —-

        Books aren’t necessarily cheap just because they are on Kindle.

  2. Why does Reason hate the blind?

    1. Because they just won’t see the light?

  3. The Kindle is racist, somehow, we haven’t figured out how yet – but we are working on it.

    1. Well, it is white.

    2. Looks like they have a black one. But it’s an Uncle Tom.

    3. The Kindle’s markup features are a potential alternative to blackboards, which are already being replaced by whiteboards.

  4. My iPhone sucks as bad as your iPhone app and I think you mean “anal” in the title.

  5. Even the e-books are massively overpriced. For instance, the Calculus book the department is forcing me to use this year costs $130 for the dead tree edition, but “only” $80 for the ebook version which costs the publisher essentially nothing to produce and distribute. Not to mention that the ebook can’t be shared or resold like the physical book can.

    1. Yes, because Calculus changes so much and so often that new editions are quite necessary. I mean, a ten-year-old Calculus book is totally out of date.

      http://www.Educator.com – $35 / month. Ten year old Calc text – $8-15. CLEP exam – $77.

      If you’re sufficiently motivated, there are ways to get around a lot of the bullshit of college.

      1. the ebook version which costs the publisher essentially nothing to produce and distribute

        How do you know how much it costs to produce and distribute?

        the ebook can’t be shared or resold

        By “shared” don’t you mean copied and distributed for free, thus undermining the incentive for the publisher to produce the ebook version in the first place?

      2. I remember that the Physics course I was taking required the purchase of a lab book. The lab book was 20 some photo copied pages for the students to put their lab results into. It cost $50 and wasn’t even Kinko level quality.

        I just photo copied my lab partner’s book and turned in those copies. I made it half way through the course before the professor told me that I couldn’t turn in any more copies. At that point I turned in the legit forms and my partner turned in the copies.

        The TA who actually ran the lab was pretty cool and let it slide for the rest of the semester.

    2. The other genre that is really bad at accepting e-book publishing is the computer/IT market.

      They want $50+ for any book on the latest programming language. They don’t care that by the time the books are printed, the platform has released a new version.

  6. Having a search function for engineering references would have been great. I might have to buy one of these when I go back to school

  7. Books’ pages can’t easily be turned by those with no hands. They should sue to ensure the use of scrolls.

    1. Don’t get me started on how my disability makes the pages stick together.

      1. So that’s what it is with you lately.

  8. “Harrison Bergeron” is looking more and more prophetic by the day.

    1. Happily, “Harrison Bergeron” has been a launch pad to many great conversations with young people about the supposed bennies of Utopia. We need another Vonnegut to rise, and soon.

    2. Apropos of nothing, but I got a chuckle looking at the back of my brother’s Indiana driver’s license, which lists one of the restriction codes as “BLIND”.

      1. I had a friend who was legally blind (20/200). He had a license to drive in Florida.

    3. I think the current crop of liberals have decided that they need to fight against fascism, and thus must awaken the people’s latent Nazi tendencies by wrecking race relations and making disabled persons and other minorities as directly, personally annoying to the average person as possible.

  9. on the list of Things Blind People Cannot Use Independently or Without Help From A Sighted Person, I’d put Kindle fairly low, compared to:

    – automobiles
    – bicycles
    – fire extinguishers
    – alarm clocks
    – DVRs
    – stoves and ovens

    (some of the above are listed with the assumption that Braille or speaking versions of dials, knobs, etc. are not available – just like with Kindle).

    I suppose, though, that since the government might in some way be called upon to subsidize this program, they would have to have a proviso for the blind to have equal opportunity access to Kindle’s features, per the ADA.

    Phuc

    1. Apropos of nothing, but I got a chuckle looking at the back of my brother’s Indiana driver’s license, which lists one of the restriction codes as “BLIND”.

  10. Wtf is a “sighted person?” Do you mean a “normal person?”

    1. “The visually privileged”

      They are 3-matching number winners in life’s lottery.

      1. Good analogy, but more like scratch-off winners of another ticket.

  11. I demand DoJ come up with a device to read Braille for me, especially during power outages, when my disability may actually cause my death in a hotel or public building.

    And don’t get me started on the unfairness of tax breaks for the blind…

  12. Easy solution- menu and search functions that are voice activated or speak when you scroll through them. “Normal people” of the more obnoxious and less intelligent kind will use features like that too- they’re using iphones afterall.

    Is the justice department really concerned about the kindle’s user friendliness to blind people, or is this all because the program is a threat to the textbook monopoly or possibly academians’ control over curriculum?

  13. And now we’ve come one glorious step closer towards Equality(TM)!

  14. “We must remain vigilant to ensure that as new devices are introduced, people with disabilities are not left behind.”

    Really? Why?

    1. Because we can? And we’re envious egalitarians?

  15. Standard paper textbooks cannot be read by the blind either (most colleges have some provision for audio versions for students who need them). How is a Kindle less blind-friendly that this? Will all standard textbooks be required to come with braille captioning? Or are they suggesting that the Kindle will be a forced replacement for other audio recordings?

  16. Ummm…Kindles can read to their users.

    http://www.amazon.com/Wireless…..B002GYWHSQ

    1. I should add, as if it weren’t obvious, that menu options may not necessarily require sight. Blind individuals can, and often do, memorize the layout of homes by counting steps. Are the suggesting that blind people can’t do the same with menus?

      1. my dad accidentally switched his computer or something into Chinese once. Not being able to read Chinese, I went through my own device and memorised the menu steps. Then went over and repeated them. It’s not complicated.

    2. Actually the problem was that they don’t read the menus to their users, so navigating them is impossible, although you can hear the text read. But see below for my take on this whole mess.

  17. A letter harrassing Case Western University can be read here.

    You leave my alma mater / current school alone, DOJ.

    1. I understand you a little better now, Warty. I wouldn’t say approve, but at least understand.

      1. Your gentle teasing only makes me want to strangle you more slowly.

    2. Wait, I thought Case Western was a good university. (At least for Cleveland) How did you get in there, Warty?

      1. I got in because Jesus hates me and wanted to punish me. I understand, but I still hate him back.

        “I know what I’m going to do with the rest of my life: study math in the snow!”

        1. There’s nothing like doing partial differential equations while freezing your nuts off…

    3. As a fellow CWRU alum (2000), I have to ask, what year?

      Also, am I the only one wondering how a blind student at Case could survive crossing Euclid Avenue more than once?

      1. 2004.

        You know, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a blind student in all the years I’ve been there. You may be on to something.

      2. As an alumnus of a music conservatory, I always wondered how the few blind kids there got by. Reading music might have been a little bit difficult for them.

    4. When I was there (’81 – physics), the motto was “Learning is suffering.”

      1. Nothing has changed, except that the Browns were fun when you were there.

        Did Tom Eck teach any of your physics classes? And was he a lunatic back then, too?

      2. I think that motto is more of a physics student thing than a Case Western thing.

  18. So, the key here is that, even though 99.9%+ of people are capable of using a Kindle, we want to fit a harness around them so that they remain worse off but equal. I’ve been seeing Harrison Bergeron pop up a lot around here lately, but if this isn’t the whole damn point of the story…

    In any case, can’t we remedy things by diverting additional resources to the blind? My alma mater, for example, had a tutor program where you would go over things with blind students, like what a professor wrote on the board and so on. Yeah, it means blind students have to do extra work, but you don’t fix that problem by forcing other students to close their eyes or by banning chalkboards and projectors.

  19. The right thing to do is to put features tailored for the blind into a later version or upgrade, not prevent sighted people from using Kindles until accommodations for the blind are provided. The point of a pilot program is to find out whether a proposed business plan works in practice, and to fine tune it (or the products and services intrinsic to it) before a general roll-out. The feedback from the pilots cited in this article should have been: “Generally well-accepted, but blind students need additional features.” This is one way that new products are created and brought to market. Why not let the system work?

  20. Next up: ban calculus. Retards can’t use it.

  21. Fuck you guys. You think it’s easy justifying my paycheck everyday? Justifying my very existence?

    I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the sufficating regulation that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said thank you, and went on your way, Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a law degree, and stand a post. Either way, I don’t give a damn what you think you are entitled to.

    1. No head for you!

  22. This is real stupid. Textbooks already discriminate agaisnt the blind. Reading Braille just takes longer, up to 50% longer, than sight reading. Audio books aren’t much better.

    The Kindle has text-to-speech, eliminating the cost of employing readers for the blind (my law school employed a student employee for our blind professor who would read cases, books, exams, etc. out loud to him). And if that doesn’t work out, they pretty much are stuck with sucky old Braille the same as they are now.

    1. Maybe they object to new technologies making braille or reading to the blind a thing of the past.
      Just a theory, but I wouldn?t be surprised if there is a braille industry or any other group trying to protect its turf.

  23. Apparently the DOJ is hot on this issue. According to the ADA newsletter we get in the office, the DOJ has sent a warning letter to all colleges and universities about “forcing” students to use the Kindle. The letter declares it to be the college’s “duty” under the ADA not to. This appears to be an active enforcement priority for both the DOJ and the Dep’t of Education.

  24. A Kindle can’t blow you either!

    1. Stop spoofing!

  25. Tom Perez lives in my neighborhood, or at least he did when he was on the Monkey County council.

    Remind me to punch him in the dick when I see him next.

    1. Here is your reminder

  26. When we’re sitting amongst the ruins of civilization, which collapsed under the overwhelming burden of well-intended idiocy and progressive “solutions,” the common refrain will be “Oh, why? Why didn’t we heed the warnings of The Onion?”

  27. They should just have an agreemant where the kids with kindles, promise not to tell the blind kids about them. I mean, how will they know if no one tells them?

    1. Thanks, I just laughed out loud at work. Now my cover is blown.

      1. anytime:)

  28. How do they have this kind if authority? What is to stop a private institution from just writing “Go fuck yourself” on the letter and buying the kindles anyway? Stuff like this makes me want to do and build things I shouldn’t mention here for fear they will go on my permanent record.

    1. Yes they do. Because virtually every college relies on some form of Gov’t funding, and because funding will be pulled if the college is found to “discriminate,” colleges are terrified of violating edicts like these.

  29. Could it be that some blindness is caused solely by the distance one has one’s head up one’s ass?

    1. Did you say something?

  30. The problem is that the disability advocates wouldn’t be satisfied by having the university assign someone to assist their blind students if it ever comes up – because the university program isn’t the real target.

    The disability advocates hate the device itself, because the blind can’t use it not just at universities, but anywhere. They are harassing Amazon’s pilot program because it gives them a mean little way to strike at the device. They couldn’t give a shit about these little pilot programs one way or the other.

    They just want to use any opportunity to harass Amazon until Amazon changes their device.

  31. Amazon provides Kindle apps for a wide variety of other platforms. For instance, I can read the books I bought on my Kindle on my macbook. You could also read it on an iPhone or your Blackberry.

    Couldn’t a blind person use a Kindle app on a laptop that had special blind-O-rama access features on it?

  32. So, the kindle has the capability to read the text out loud, unlike books. Isn’t that still a massive improvement for blind people?

  33. Hey, Case Western is my alum! Bastards.

  34. A couple of weeks ago I attended a symposium on universities and IT policy (it’s what I do…)
    Anyway, one of the panels included the lawyer for the NFB and reps from two of the universities that got those threatening letters.
    The lawyer was a pure ambulance-chaser type, with righteous outrage for the poor downtrodden visually impaired (with the usual bullshit about the 40 million disabled Americans). He informed us that without the ADA there would never have been wheeled suitcases. Really.
    Anyway, his story was that unless the Kindle was stopped NOW it would never be blind-accessible, and the universities were the right vector to pressure Amazon (and indirectly, Apple and other e-book makers). He was not impressed by the fact that this was a pilot, that nobody was being forced to use the Kindles, that it would have benefited the vast majority of students or that the universities in question had no blind students. In response, he quoted Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive:

    ‘I don’t care’.

    The audience (made up of university IT policy geeks like myself from around the country) were livid, but very nervous, because he virtually threatened to sue anyone who argued with him. Besides, most of them were consumed by the usual liberal guilt.
    I challenged him by asking about reading cuneiform (which I used to be able to do, once upon a time). He admitted that there are some things that blind people just can’t do, and that the ADA doesn’t require accommodation to those things, but was adamant that this was just a way to get the e-book reader manufacturers to pay attention to his clients.
    It’s exactly parallel to why the RIAA and MPAA go after universities for illegal downloading. It’s not that university students do more than others–it’s that universities can’t fight back because they don’t have deep pockets.
    All told, a very upsetting and disturbing session.
    On the other hand, why Amazon chose to make the Kindle have its text voice-enabled but not the menus, heaven knows.

  35. so, following this logic:

    1) no more using the blackboard / whiteboard, because blind students cannot see it

    2) no more spoken lectures, because deaf students cannot hear them

    3) no more books, unless braille versions are available

    4) no more braille books, because blind students without hands cannot read them

    5) no more attending classes, because some students with physical problems are not able to leave home or the hospital to attend

    the solution is just to give everyone degrees without ever having to attend class or do any work

    seriously, though, the best approach if they did have to get involved was to get amazon to get the menus voice enabled

  36. I support the goal of making it accessible to the blind, but I think the point of a pilot is to first figure out if there’s a large enough interested audience, and if there is find out what they’re interested in. Once a large and interested audience is established, only then does it make sense to start making tweaks to make it accessible to others. Until you know if there’s an audience in place and what they want you don’t know what the actually product will be and hence how to tweak it for accessibility.

    I once went to a campus workshop on making assignments accessible. I noted that none of the presentations said anything about equations and asked what I have to do to make equations accessible. I was given a speech about the importance of accessibility. I said “That’s great, no argument here, but what software or other tool can I use to make equations accessible?” The response was “Oh, that’s another workshop.”

    He also said that our economy would collapse if we didn’t make everything accessible and hence maximize the number of people who can produce and participate. This was in August of 2008. A few weeks later, the economy did indeed collapse. Turns out he was right.

  37. There’s a good Helen Keller joke in there somewhere.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.