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…And Access for All

April 28 2010 | by


He gets it, I said aloud to no one in particular. I listened to the robotic-sounding voice on my screen reader that was turning the words I was reading into comprehensible spoken text.

I was talking about Samuel R. Bagenstos, the Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights division, who had just told the House Judiciary panel that access to new technologies for people with disabilities is “not simply a technical matter, but a fundamental issue of civil rights.” All I have to say is Hallelujah!

Bagenstos said the Justice Dept. would push to bring better access to emerging technologies for people with disabilities, such as government and commercial websites, the Internet and digital talking books. Websites are particularly difficult for people with vision impairments, who must use assistive technologies like screen readers that read text out loud or braille displays that convert text to braille.

The Civil Rights division defines, regulates, protects, and enforces the Americans with Disabilities Act. Bagenstos demonstrated such a compelling understanding of the issues that confront people who rely upon screen readers. I felt like weeping with relief and gratitude as I read his statement online (with the assistance of my screen reader, called Window-Eyes).

He understands that a computer mouse doesn’t work for me, but the cluster of keyboard commands I have managed to memorize over the past several years does. He described the frustration I feel so often when my screen reader says, “Graphic, graphic, graphic” when it encounters images that have no descriptive tags. He explained to the committee that making those images accessible is neither difficult nor expensive. A free standard developed by the Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C) already exists.

Bagenstos also discussed the accessibility of textbooks for students attending colleges and universities. When I was a graduate student about ten years ago, the disabled students’ services department at my university jumped through all kinds of hoops to get my textbooks and other reading materials recorded onto analog audiotape. When that wasn’t possible, the DSS team hired live readers or scanned handouts and syllabi and converted them into braille.

Despite the school’s best efforts, my textbooks and handouts were often not available until weeks into the semester. Luckily, my classmates and teachers helped out with transcriptions. If it were not for them, I might never have caught up or earned my master’s degree in special education.

Today, digital electronic book readers, like’s Kindle, are gaining popularity on campuses. This should be great news for people who rely on screen readers, and the Kindle even has a text-to-speech feature built right into the device. Unfortunately, Amazon they neglected to make any of the controls or menus speak, rendering the Kindle inaccessible for people who are blind and visually impaired.

After Arizona State University and other schools began a student pilot program with the Kindle DX for textbooks, blindness organizations brought forth a lawsuit, which was eventually settled. The Justice Dept. also got involved, and reached settlements with other schools, including Case Western Reserve University, Reed College and Pace University. The schools agreed they would not purchase, require, or in any way incorporate into the curriculum the Kindle DX or any other dedicated electronic book reader that is not fully accessible to people who are blind or have low vision.

The Department of Justice, in this instance, spelled out for society exactly what functional accessibility means. Their clear definition of accessibility makes such civil rights agreements concrete and meaningful. Whether it’s access to a place of commerce, or a college textbook, or an interpreter, or a descriptive tag for a website, specific statements, along with regulations, will go a long way toward making accessibility a reality and a civil right. Hallelujah!

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