Amazon, Federation of the Blind Reach Agreement on Accessibility

Associate Editor

After years of questioning the accessibility of Amazon’s Kindle e-reader, the National Federation of the Blind today announced that it will work with the online retailer to improve reading experiences for blind, low-vision, and deaf-blind students.

In a statement, the federation indicated it will “collaborate on improvements to Amazon’s education content, platforms, and applications.” It added that representatives from Amazon and the Baltimore-based federation will meet on an ongoing basis “to review progress and exchange ideas and feedback.”

Initial results of this collaboration are expected this year, according to the announcement.

The accessibility issue became an obstacle last year when Amazon won a $30 million contract with New York City schools to develop an online e-book storefront for educators. Under the contract, Amazon Digital Services Inc. would create a comprehensive online shopping source for e-books and digital content available for educators, but a vote on the proposed agreement was stalled when the accessibility issue was raised.

The National Federation protested the selection of Amazon, on grounds that the custom Kindle format posed a challenge to screen readers used by people with print disabilities. At the time, Mark A. Riccobono, president of the National Federation of the Blind, wrote a letter to New York school officials with his concerns, which included this passage:

“[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.”

This conversion meant that, even under the best Kindle reading experience for a blind reader–which is using the Kindle for iOS app on an iPad–a blind student or teacher couldn’t read tables, easily skip around in the text, and read “alt text” labels on photos, illustrations or graphics, for instance.

Will $30 Million New York Schools-Amazon Contract Budge?

Missing from today’s announcement was any reference to progress on Amazon’s proposed contract with the 1.1 million-student New York City schools, and a spokesman for the national federation said he could not comment on that.

EdWeek Market Brief reached out to a New York City Department of Education spokesperson yesterday, but did not receive a response. The proposed agreement would create an online presence with many capabilities, as teachers and principals make purchasing decisions in the district. 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.

In the national federation’s statement about its memorandum of understanding with Amazon, Rohit Agarwal, general manager of Amazon K-12 Education, offered the following comment: “We are seeing educational institutions embrace digital learning for its ease of access to a large selection of learning resources for students. ….This shift provides a great opportunity to improve accessibility for blind students. By collaborating with the National Federation of the Blind, we hope to advance accessibility for all content, platforms and applications that Amazon develops to better serve K-12 and higher education students.”

For his part, Riccobono said NFB and Amazon “have sought a productive collaboration to improve accessibility, and we now look forward to working together closely to improve the technologies that will make digital reading experiences better for all customers.”

Amazon’s footprint in education is growing, with plans underway to create a platform for open-educational resources, and its partnering with education organizations to launch a With Math I Can “growth mindset” campaign to bolster student achievement in math.


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