Accessibility issues delay $ 30 million Amazon e-book deal in New York

Posted from Marketplace K-12

New York City schools delayed a vote this week on awarding Amazon a $ 30 million contract to develop an online e-book storefront for educators, after advocates for the people blind and partially sighted people raised accessibility issues.

The National Federation of the Blind is wondering if its community would have full access to the online platform that would be designed for teachers and school principals to order e-books and digital content, and whether educators and Blind and visually impaired students will be able to use content once downloaded via the Kindle file format.

“Our concern is that what we knew of the project criteria did not include clear accessibility requirements” in either area, said Mark Riccobono, president of the federation, in an interview. telephone. His organization’s objections to the Kindle’s custom file format dates from 2008, he said, because visually impaired users who access eBooks this way can’t read the tables, jump into the text, or know what illustrations are there.

The draft agreement between Amazon and the 1.1 million student district would create a one-of-a-kind online shopping presence with many capabilities as teachers and school principals across the city make purchasing decisions. Educators could recommend and rate the materials they purchase through the “storefront,” just like Amazon consumers do. Students could also rate the content. Teachers can see what content their students are accessing and track its usage. Content created by teachers could also be downloaded and published.

The vote on the deal, originally scheduled for August 26, has been postponed to 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 that welcome visually impaired students, will be able to take advantage of the e-books and e-content market when responding to their needs. needs, ”said Devora Kaye. , the press secretary for the city’s education ministry, in a prepared statement.

For its part, the federation canceled a planned event outside of the August 26 meeting once the vote was delayed.

Compatibility issues with screen reader software

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

[E]Even using an accessible device and accessible e-reading software platform, a blind reader attempting to work with a Kindle e-book that is more than a simple novel will encounter significant accessibility barriers as the proprietary process of Amazon converting the eBook file from ePub3 format to Kindle format cleaned up the file of metadata needed for blind person assistive technology.

According to the organization, the best Kindle reading experience for a blind student or teacher is to use the Kindle for iOS app on an iPad. In his letter, Riccobono goes on to state that the limitations of the Kindle file format, not the app, would always mean that a blind student or teacher would not be able to:

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

Amazon did not respond to a request for Education week on problems with proprietary software for Kindle eBooks, or to answer questions about how addressing those concerns might alter its proposal for schools in the city.

The city’s schools contract selection committee unanimously chose Amazon’s proposal from a panel of 14 submitted by various vendors. Amazon would be responsible for bearing the costs of developing the secure web platform under the terms of the proposed agreement. Purchases on 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.

The MOOC settles the matter of accessibility

The decision to delay signing the contract with Amazon comes four months after another high-profile challenge to an electronics technology provider to make its product accessible.

In April, edX, an e-learning platform, has reached a settlement agreement with the US Department of Justice over allegations that the organization’s digital content was not accessible to people with disabilities, in violation of federal law.

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

The four-year deal requires edX to ensure that its website, mobile apps and learning management system software, through which online courses are offered, are fully accessible within 18 month. 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 content creation and publication. accessible.

Librarian Holly Peele contributed to this story.

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