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Originally published December 12, 2012 at 6:42 PM | Page modified December 13, 2012 at 6:31 AM

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Visually impaired protest at Amazon

The National Federation of the Blind says a new push by Amazon to put Kindle e-books in K-12 classrooms threatens to leave blind students behind.

Seattle Times business reporter

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Carrying a sign that read “Equal Access in the Classroom,” former New York Gov. David Paterson joined about 70 members of the National Federation of the Blind outside Amazon.com’s Seattle headquarters Wednesday to urge the company to make its Kindle e-books fully accessible to blind students.

The protesters argued that while Kindle books can be read aloud with Amazon’s text-to-speech engine, they lack key features available in other products, including Apple’s iBooks. Those features include the ability to annotate important passages and check spelling or punctuation. They also said Kindle books, unlike iBooks, cannot be read with a Braille display that connects to devices, hurting students who are both blind and deaf.

The two-hour protest came on the heels of Amazon’s recent launch of an online tool called Whispercast, which partly seeks to raise its presence in schools by enabling teachers to push Kindle books to different devices.

“Disabled people are more disoriented than ever as we shift to technology that leaves them out,” said Paterson, only the second legally blind governor of any state in U.S. history.

Protesters directed much of their criticism at Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, at one point chanting “Come out, Jeff.” One activist, wearing a Grinch mask and costume, pretended to be Bezos as the Christmas song “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” was broadcast over speakers.

John Pare, executive director for advocacy and policy at the federation of the blind, delivered what he said were 15 letters from blind children and their parents to an Amazon employee standing at the main entrance. Pare also asked to talk with Bezos but was told he was not present.

In a subsequent email, Amazon spokesperson Leslie Letts declined to comment on the protest. Instead, Letts referred to an announcement that Amazon made last week, highlighting the addition of two accessibility features to its standard-definition Kindle Fire and 7-inch HD tablets. Both additions promised to improve navigation for visually impaired customers.

Dave Limp, vice president of Amazon Kindle, said in the statement the company planned to “deliver additional accessibility features,” but critics maintained Wednesday they had no assurance their concerns were being addressed.

“We have spoken with them before, but we’re not having any meaningful interaction with them right now. They’re not talking to us,” said Chris Danielsen, spokesman for the federation,

He said the organization next will focus on trying to stop K-12 classrooms from using Kindle e-books on the grounds that they put blind students at an unfair disadvantage.

“The schools are in legal jeopardy,” he said. “I think it’s a pretty lousy business model for Amazon to sell a product to schools that they know is going to get the schools sued.”

In 2009, Arizona State University agreed to use devices more accessible to the blind after the federation sued the school to block it from distributing Amazon’s Kindle DX e-reader.

Amy Martinez: 206-464-2923 or amartinez@seattletimes.com

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