Free Markets, Free People

e-books

“If I can’t have it, nobody can”

As with most good intentions, the American’s With Disabilities Act has grown into something which in some cases obviously violates that initial intent.  Designed to provide equal access to Americans with both physical and mental disabilities, the common sense side of such an endeavor has begun to fall to the more absurd and, frankly, selfish interpretations of the law.

The benign intent – equal access – has become a more authoritarian application and is resulting in penalizing the able.

The latest illustration of that comes to us from the world of academia.  And the result is a bureaucratic ruling which delayed, if not destroyed, a great idea. 

As we all know, college is an expensive proposition.  So anything which helps reduce that cost is something which should be at least explored to see if its viable.  A few schools were engaged in just such a project involving the Amazon Kindle – an e-book reader that users can download books onto.  In this case the books were text books:

Last year, the schools — among them Princeton, Arizona State and Case Western Reserve — wanted to know if e-book readers would be more convenient and less costly than traditional textbooks. The environmentally conscious educators also wanted to reduce the huge amount of paper students use to print files from their laptops.

Makes sense, doesn’t it?  Reduced cost for text books.  Reduced paper usage.  It would seem a perfectly sensible project for schools to undertake.  Well, it did until the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division stepped in based on a complaint from the National Federation of the Blind:

The Civil Rights Division informed the schools they were under investigation. In subsequent talks, the Justice Department demanded the universities stop distributing the Kindle; if blind students couldn’t use the device, then nobody could. The Federation made the same demand in a separate lawsuit against Arizona State.

In short the Federation is saying, “if we can’t use the Kindle, no one can”.  Interestingly, there wasn’t a single blind student in any of the project courses.

The Kindle, of course, is speech capable.  It will read to you.  However, as it was configured then, it required a sighted person to get to that part of the menu.  So while one can understand the complaint to a point, I don’t understand the reaction.  Why must everyone be banned from this common sense approach to saving money and resources because a very small segment of the population couldn’t yet avail themselves of the technology?   Key word – ‘yet’. 

It goes to a premise that we see constantly espoused on the left – only government is capable of adjudicating and enforcing “fairness”, even when such an adjudication is absurd and, as it turns out, an over reaction. 

School officials were a bit baffled by the ruling:

Given the speed of technological development and the reality of competition among technology companies — Apple products were already fully text-to-speech capable — wasn’t this a problem the market would solve?

Of course it would.  And competition would drive it – such as Apple.  But the Justice Department decided if the blind can’t have it, neither can the sighted.

In early 2010, after most of the courses were over, the Justice Department reached agreement with the schools, and the federation settled with Arizona State. The schools denied violating the ADA but agreed that until the Kindle was fully accessible, nobody would use it.

Kindle knew the idea for saving money through using e-text books was a good one.  They also knew, given Apple’s entry, that they would lose out if it wasn’t accessible to the blind.  So they developed a Kindle – the latest version – that is fully accessible to the blind.  And, it was a project which had already been in the works prior to the intrusion of the government.

That, however, didn’t stop the Civil Rights Division from again warning educators:

But as Amazon was unveiling the new Kindle last week, Perez was sending a letter to educators warning them they must use technology "in a manner that is permissible under federal law."

So here we have a problem that was in the process of being solved by the market when the need was identified.  In the mean time, as that problem was being solved, the project could have moved forward and eventually benefitted any number of students with lower cost text books and less paper usage.  Instead, no one was able to use the technological tool, and now that the problem has been solved, the federal government is still warning schools about the use of such devices.

There are those who will claim, some in our comment section, that this would have never happened had it not been for government.  That is simply not true.  As noted, the revised Kindle that would accommodate the blind was already on the drawing board for the next revision.   Instead what we saw is unnecessary government intervention.  Instead of warning the schools off of the project, had the government checked with Amazon, they’d have discovered that the desired product was under development. 

They didn’t.  They instead decided to use the authoritarian approach and threaten the schools with the law.  As one person said:

"As a blind person, I would never want to be associated with any movement that punished sighted students, particularly for nothing they had ever done," says Russell Redenbaugh, a California investor who lost his sight in a childhood accident and later served for 15 years on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. "It’s a gross injustice to disadvantage one group, and it’s bad policy that breeds resentment, not compassion."

It is bad policy, and as it was used in this case, bad law.  Anyone who has made it into adulthood knows that life is not fair, never has been and will never be.  We each, to some degree or another and in varying degrees of severity, have disabilities for which we have to compensate.  Most of us have no problem with reasonable and common sense accommodations which enable those among us with more severe disabilities the chance to participate more fully.  However, when you begin to penalize the able because the disabled don’t have the same opportunity to participate for whatever reason, then it is a level of intrusion that is both unwelcome and unwarranted. Unfortunately, though, it is all too common.

~McQ

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