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Objecting to Accessibility Weaseling

Head shot of Jim Fruchterman
Head shot of Jim Fruchterman

Post by Benetech CEO, Jim Fruchterman

In early September, the National Federation of the Blind and 22 organizations serving people with disabilities filed detailed objections to a petition from a group of makers of e-reader devices led by Amazon to be exempted from accessibility requirements under the relatively new Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act. Benetech was a proud endorser of these objections (under our legal organizational name of Beneficent Technology, Inc.).

You might ask: why would an organization that in many ways provides a competitive alternative to e-readers object to e-readers being exempted from accessibility requirements? Wouldn’t that create more demand for our Bookshare online library?

It sure would create more demand for Bookshare in the future, but our primary goal is not to sustain Bookshare, although we will as long as Bookshare is needed. Our primary goal is to ensure that people with disabilities get equal access to the books and content they need for education, employment, leisure and social inclusion. We think the best long-term way to solve this equal access problem is, well, equal access. We think that people with print disabilities should be able to get their books the same way people without disabilities get them. And, increasingly, that means through inexpensive e-readers like the Amazon Kindle.

People with print disabilities are the most natural customers in the world for digital versions of books. It is supremely ironic that they have been systematically locked out of that content over the last decade through:

  • collateral damage: technology designed to defeat piracy stopping accessibility technology,
  • rights confusion: publishers turning off text-to-speech access because of authors’ claims (which I think are pretty bogus) that these are covered by audio rights, not print rights, and
  • active neglect:  leading example is Amazon continually committing to accessibility and then leaving it out of most new Kindle products

Betsy Beaumon, the general manager of Bookshare, has coined the label Born Accessible.  She wants to see every piece of content that is born digital be born accessible. We all want the same ebook that people without disabilities buy (sorry, I mean license) to work perfectly well for people who are blind, physically disabled or dyslexic. If we and the publishing industry succeed in this, then libraries like Bookshare will gradually move to filling the same kind of secondary role that public libraries fulfill for the general public: access to books for those too poor to purchase them, or for those who need to do research and don’t care to purchase every book they consult.

That’s why we’re happy to stand in solidarity with NFB and our peers in the disability and accessibility worlds. If this attempt by Amazon and their peers to weasel out of accessibility requirements built into U.S. civil rights laws succeeds, people with disabilities will be yet again be denied equality.


  1. This article was so informative. I am saddened by the lack of support from amazon and other sites that try to prevent people with print disabilities from receiving equal reading opportunities. Being totally blind and a huge fan of Christian fantasy titles, I often am unable to obtain titles that others can find. Thank you for your wonderful web site and for this insightful blog post.

  2. rowena cherry

    The trouble is, Jim, some would say that you ARE a pirate. If you followed the DMCA, your readers would pay the rightsholder the same price paid by every sighted reader for each book your print-disadvantaged customers read, even if it is translated into some other format by you.

    You call yourself a library, but you are not a library in the sense that you license books from rights holders, or agree to replace books after a certain number of “reads”.

    You talk about wanting books that are “born digital” to be “born accessible” but in fact, you scan books that were never intended to be digital and create digital versions.

    You don’t appear to understand that Amazon and Nook etc may not have the necessary legal rights to do what you wish they would. The Chaffee Amendment doesn’t give them the fig leaf that you have.

    • Bookshare Team Member

      Thanks as always, Rowena, for your input. Of course, some might call me all sorts of things, but if they claim we’re violating copyright law or the DMCA, they would be mistaken. We’ve managed to help huge numbers of people with severe disabilities, even as groups like the Authors Guild put forth positions that are threatening to the ability of people with print disabilities to gain access to the books they need for education, employment and inclusion in society. We’re glad to have the cooperation of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, an enlightened group of authors who concluded a memorandum of understanding with Bookshare underscoring our shared commitment to respect for copyright and authors’ rights as well as the civil rights of people with disabilities.

      We’ll continue to advocate for makers of devices to build in accessibility into their devices, especially given the great example of Apple whose iPhones and iPads seem to be quite accessible for ebook readers. The accessibility problems of devices like Amazon and the Nook are not legal, but primarily technical design choices that I hope they remedy over time. And, we’ll continue to fight for the equal right of people with disabilities to purchase accessible ebooks through mainstream channels, and hope that some authors do not seek to deprecate the civil rights of another community while seeking to advance their economic rights. The rights of people with disabilities and authors are both moral high grounds. It helps neither group to get into arguments about whose moral high ground has the greater altitude.

  3. rowena cherry


    I appreciate your courteous reply, but I still believe that you rely on a misreading of the Chafee Amendment. Quoting from a comment on an A G blog “a footnote in the amicus brief filed on behalf of the American Association of People with Disabilities (Doc 138) where it says at footnote 16 Page 17:

    “As the HDL and NFB explain, Congress also enacted Section 121 of the Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. § 121, to clarify that efforts to make books accessible to patrons with disabilities are non-infringing.”

    This was a footnote to the statement on page 17: “Fortunately, Congress has harmonized copyright and accessibility law by recognizing that making copyrighted works accessible for people with disabilities is a non-infringing fair use.”

    In his Senate floor comments upon the introduction of Section 121, the late Senator Chafee made no remarks as to how his drafted amendment might ‘clarify’ or even address fair use; quite the contrary, he made the remark that even subsequent to the Copyright Act of 1976, The Library of Congress itself was still required to obtain permission from publishers before making any accessible renditions of copyrighted works. ”

    Your fine work would be much better if you emulated the LOC and sought permission, and if you charged your patrons the equivalent of the price of a paperback which you then remitted to the copyright holders for each “borrow”.

    • Bookshare Team Member

      Thanks, Rowena, for the chance to continue to explain how we work. We work reasonably closely with the Library of Congress, and they do not need to seek permission from publishers for domestic availability. Their factsheet on the Chafee Amendment ( notes that they only need to ask permission of foreign publishers for distributing foreign works outside the United States. Our interpretation right now is narrower: we ask permission for all distribution outside the United States of copyrighted works not available under an open license. Although, this is likely to shift with the Treaty of Marrakesh and the expected proliferation of copyright exceptions like the Chafee Amendment in many more countries, with improved ability to import/export titles.

      I’m sure that like you, many authors would be happier if every library remitted a royalty for each book that a library patron borrowed. But, that “modest proposal” would be the end of libraries as we know them. I encourage people who can afford books to buy them, and those who cannot to get them from libraries. I think that’s a fair approach to balancing the economic interests of publishers (and the authors who sign up with publishers) and the general public. Especially the poor, and people with disabilities.

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