You are here:

Why Accessibility is an Essential Ingredient for the iPad's Success in Education

Today, Apple announced some new tools that are likely to revolutionize textbook publishing and education in the same way that iTunes and the iPod changed music and the music industry and in the way the Appstore and the iPhone changed mobile phones. Specifically, Apple announced:

  • iBooks 2, which will make it possible to download interactive multimedia textbooks to mobile devices,
  • iBooks Author, a Mac app that enables the easy creation of such textbooks, and
  • a dedicated iTunes app, which professors and teachers can use to facilitate online learning.

There is a crucial aspect to this announcement that may not be obvious to everyone at first. Apple's commitment to accessibility is why the iPad will succeed in higher education where Amazon's Kindle and Barnes & Noble's Nook cannot. Apple's dominance in the education market is all but guaranteed, at least in the short term.

Apple is a hardware company. The real money is not in the cut Apple takes when textbooks are sold in the iBooks Store, though Apple will of course take its cut. No, the real money comes from putting an iPad in the hands of every student. And while there are significant financial issues that need to be addressed before this is possible, there is one important barrier to entry into the education market that Apple, unlike Amazon and Barnes & Noble, will not face.

Amazon had a shot at establishing a significant foothold in colleges and universities several years ago when the iPad was little more than a prototype somewhere in Cupertino. But the only nod towards accessibility that Amazon offered in the Kindle was to include a text-to-speech capability that was designed for sighted people, that could not be used independently by blind people, and that could be turned off by publishers and authors. Because of the lack of accessibility, when Amazon tried to deploy the Kindle DX in six post secondary institutions in 2009, One of the largest institutions, Arizona State University, was sued by the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and the American Council of the Blind (ACB).

The suit was eventually settled, primarily because Amazon promised to improve the accessibility of the Kindle and Arizona State promised to take accessibility more seriously in any further attempts to introduce e-readers into the classroom. Amazon did take some relatively small steps towards improving the accessibility of the Kindle product line. However, the company regressed significantly last year when it introduced its latest Kindle, the Fire, which, once again, is totally inaccessible to the blind.

This means that Amazon has little hope of making a significant foray into the textbook market. The reason is simple: In the US, a university cannot spend federal funds to introduce a technology if introducing that technology excludes a student from participating, denies her some benefit, or subjects her to discrimination. Deploying the Kindle Fire in universities and incorporating it into higher education would do all of these things and would violate the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Apparently, Barnes & Noble did not learn from the Amazon case, as the NFB has filed a complaint against Baltimore Schools for plans to purchase and use another inaccessible device, the Nook E-Reader. The complaint was filed on the birthday of Louis Braille earlier this year and a settlement has yet to be reached.

The reason for raising these two cases is to contrast them with Apple's iPad. Apple added Voiceover,  its built in screen reader, to the iPhone 3G s and the third-generation iPod Touch in 2009. Since then, every iteration of the iPhone, the iPod Touch, and the iPad has included Voiceover, and these products have become tremendously popular among blind people all over the world. When universities, libraries, schools, and other public institutions begin incorporating iPads as an essential part of education, there will be no law suits from the NFB or any other blindness organization. Apple's efforts to make its products accessible to as many people as possible are going to pay off in a major way when iPads start being used in schools and universities. And, until Amazon and Barnes & Noble come out with products that can be used by the blind and others with disabilities, they are going to be all but shut out of this lucrative market.


This blog is curated by the AEBC, but welcomes contributions from members and non-members alike. The thoughts, views, and opinions expressed in the Blind Canadians Blog are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the AEBC, its members, or any of its donors and partners.


Part of what needs to happen to spur this movement onward is, of course, a change in perception by the very educational institutions which purchase these devices.

If accessibility and usability are a critical part of the purchasing criteria in the first place, then devices such as Apple's iPad will not only be the preferred choice, but logically they may be the only choice.

In the U.S., this may be achieved somewhat already for institutions which receive federal government funding (because of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act). Getting Canadian institutions on board is the challenge... and given that the Canadian government can't even insist on accessibility internally (as evidenced by Donna Jodhan's web accessibility case), it seems doubtful they're going to be in any position to try to force the issue with external entities any time soon.