13 April 2008

Making the Accessible Inaccessible

Why would a textbook publisher go out of their way to discriminate?

Why would any university receiving any public funding suggest books from a publisher which goes out of their way to discriminate?

Recently I looked at a sample of W.W. Norton's e-books. The idea of delivering books like this, less expensively and with good interactive features (you can highlight and take notes in these books) is great, but Norton, like other mainstream US publishers, has chosen to fully embrace the past and to see just how many people they can leave behind, rather than taking the inclusive approach.

"Do Norton ebooks support Text-to-Speech or other accessibility features?
"Norton ebooks do not include accessibility features at this time."1

Despite using Adobe Acrobat technology which fully supports text-to-speech Norton has decided to block access for millions of visually and otherwise print-disabled students. An interesting choice. In fact, they have taken this one step further: Unlike a print book which can be easily scanned by literacy support or simple OCR programs (WYNN, Read-and-Write, OmniPage, etc) these textbook downloads make that almost impossible as well. Thus forcing disabled students to pay more for their books than their 'non-disabled' peers.

(Feel free to contact the company at
500 Fifth Avenue
New York, N.Y. 10110
Tel 212-354-5500
Fax 212-869-0856
and leave a comment if you'd like. Notice they don't include e-mail or TTY links.)

Now, Norton will claim that they will support those with disabilities, but read carefully: "Titles we need to order from our printer may take up to two months to arrive. We expect our readers to have purchased a hard copy of the text before we provide the book in electronic format." In other words, spend money to humiliate yourself with the disability label, then spend the money to buy the print edition, then, after a couple of months, they'll let you access their text. How very nice.

(for an interesting conversation on this question, take a look at Lon Thornburg's blog)

It gets worse. It isn't just the "disabled" left behind by these wonderful people. It is everyone who can not afford a computer. This includes not just millions of Americans but billions around the world whose sole ICT is their mobile phone.

"Can I read Norton ebooks on my handheld device?
"While all downloadable Norton ebooks are technically handheld-compatible provided that your device is equipped with Adobe Reader for Palm OSv3 or later, our titles are not formatted for handheld use. We do not recommend that you purchase the downloadable ebook if you intend to make significant use of it on a handheld device."1

So, can't afford a computer? No chance for "More money in your pocket. ebooks cost much less than paper books—usually 50% less! " as Norton's website puts it. Talk about education ensuring social reproduction!

Not alone...

I wish I could say that W.W. Norton was alone in this support for discrimination against those with physical and learning differences and those without financial resources, but of course they are not. Most other textbook publishers are the same, and most universities simply do not care. And surely the US government - which has not done a thing to force the NIMAS issue - does not care. After all, access to information is not anyone's open right in the United States - it only comes (if it does come) if you have true, affordable, access to non-emergency medical care - a category which probably leaves out a third of Americans.

For myself, I'm tired of all these cute formats - from DAISY on down. Accessible text to me is plain text, or text which can quickly, easily (and freely) be made plain, so that it can be read by free text-to-speech software or simply converted for use by any of the "paid for" programs. If it contains images they need to be simple, accessible formats properly tagged (or captioned) with alternate descriptions. None of that is hard. In fact, as Norton's case proves, you have to jump through a million technical hoops to convert something which was once easily accessible (the Microsoft Word doc in which their books were undoubtedly originally written) into something as blatantly stupid as their downloadable e-book. After all, give me those original docs and the illustrations and I could very easily convert it into a Microsoft Reader (free software) e-book that you can also bookmark, highlight, and take notes in, but which also reads to you with word-by-word highlighting and gives you right-click definitions.

Information wants to be free, as they say. Universities and schools which accept public funding should accept nothing less than universal access to text.

- Ira Socol

1 - Norton's own FAQ: http://www.nortonebooks.com/faq.asp

Almost - I keep begging for a handheld printer that could bluetooth-connect with a laptop or mobile phone. For all of those with dysgraphia or dexterity issues or physical impairments who struggle with that occasional need to "leave a note," etc. Polaroid is about to introduce the platform, a tiny handheld which needs no ink or toner because the technology is "in the paper" - as it was with Polaroid photography or the paper of ancient copiers and early fax machines. Now we just need someone to do a bit of software writing so that text can be delivered this way rather than photography...

The Drool Room by Ira David Socol, a novel in stories that has - as at least one focus - life within "Special Education in America" - is now available from the River Foyle Press through lulu.com

US $16.00 on Amazon

US $16.00 direct via lulu.com

Look Inside This Book

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