The DOJ reached the agreements under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of a disability. One agreement, reached Wednesday, covered Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio; Pace University in New York City, and Reed College in Portland, Ore. A separate agreement, reached Jan. 11, was between the Justice Department, Arizona State University, the National Federation of the Blind, and the American Council of the Blind.
The schools have agreed not to purchase, recommend, or promote the Kindle DX, or any other e-book reader, unless the device is fully accessible to visually impaired people. Any e-reader adopted by the universities must allow all students to access and acquire the same materials and information, to engage in the same interactions, and to enjoy the same services, the DOJ said.
"Advancing technology is systematically changing the way universities approach education, but we must be sure that emerging technologies offer individuals with disabilities the same opportunities as other students," Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez said in a statement.
The Kindle DX, which has nearly a 10-inch digital paper display, is designed for viewing professional documents, textbooks, and other content where a large screen is desirable. Amazon also sells the Kindle, which has a six-inch screen that's best-suited for reading e-books.
The Kindle DX has a text-to-speech feature to make content accessible to the visually impaired. However, the device does not include a similar function for the menu and navigational controls, making it impossible for blind students to find content or access the device's other functions, the DOJ said.
A handful of universities participated in a pilot project conducted by Amazon to test the Kindle DX in a classroom setting. Other universities that participated in the project included Syracuse University and the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Both schools decided they would not use the Kindle DX until it is fully accessible to blind people.
Analysts believe that e-reader manufacturers could eventually find a lucrative market in high schools and universities, given the benefits of being able to carry all instructional material in a single, lightweight device. However, such an offering would depend on getting textbook publishers onboard, something they're hesitant to do until they can establish a profitable business model.
In the meantime, the use of e-book readers in general is expected to grow. Forrester Research estimates 3 million units were sold in 2009 in the United States and expects sales this year to reach 10 million units.