No Kindles on Campus: All Must Be Blind

 Posted by on 22 January 2010 at 8:00 am  Ethics, Politics
Jan 222010

Despite the good news of late, the inmates are still running quite a few wings of the asylum.

Three colleges seeking to experiment with using the Kindle rather than expensive textbooks have been forbidden from doing so by the Justice Department. Why? Because they’re not fully functional for blind students. Of course, the Kindle offers a good text-to-speech reader, so that makes it superior to an ordinary textbook for a blind student. However, the problem is that the menu functions of the Kindle require sight to navigate at present.

According to the Justice Department, blind college students are so profoundly disabled — despite reaching college without the benefit of sight — that they cannot possibly find any way around this problem. It would be impossible, for example, for them to ask a fellow student or a roommate for help with locating the right file. Of course, that wouldn’t be ideal for them. I’d love to see the Kindle updated so as to read out the menu items for the sake of blind users. Yet the idea that a blind person couldn’t manage this problem — despite overcoming so many difficulties to get to college — is absurd… and offensive.

According to the Department of Justice:

Under the agreements reached today, the universities generally will not purchase, recommend or promote use of the Kindle DX, or any other dedicated electronic book reader, unless the devices are fully accessible to students who are blind and have low vision. The universities agree that if they use dedicated electronic book readers, they will ensure that students with vision disabilities are able to access and acquire the same materials and information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as sighted students with substantially equivalent ease of use.

That’s demanding the impossible, particularly in a college setting. Blind students necessarily lack the easy access to visual information available to any sighted person. They will have to work harder to read a textbook or handout than a sighted student. Some forms of information, like PowerPoint presentations or writing on the chalkboard, might be largely inaccessible to them. The simple fact is that blind people have to work harder to educate themselves. Technology can make that process easier, but blind people cannot be made equal to sighted people — except by blinding sighted people.

Notably, conservatives often oppose such policies. They reject the ideal of “equality of outcomes” in favor of “equality of opportunity.” Yet notice that the Department of Justice appeals only the “equality of opportunity” to justify their interference. Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez 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. These agreements underscore the importance of full and equal educational opportunities for everyone. [Emphasis added.]

People’s opportunities in life often depend on factors beyond their control — meaning, on bad luck. A person might be born with a congenital disorder. He might be born to stupid, poor, or amoral parents — or in a backwards, irrational culture. He might suffer a terrible injury in an accident. A person can be the victim of bad luck, such that he must work harder than others to live well. Undoubtedly, that’s unfortunate, perhaps even pitiable. Such people are often worthy of benevolent help. They are often admirable for overcoming their misfortunes by courage, determination, and hard work.

However, justice does not oblige anyone to help to unlucky people so that their opportunities in life are the same as everyone else’s. A person is responsible for making his own life as good as he can, whatever misfortunes he might suffer. That’s his basic job as a human person. Other people are only obligated to leave him free to do that, by respecting his rights. That’s what a person needs — more than anything else — to overcome any kind of bad luck: he needs the freedom to act according to his own best judgment, for the sake of his own life and happiness. Moreover, the unlucky person needs other people, whatever their luck in life, to enjoy the same freedom. The freedom of others will enable them to be most productive, and the unlucky person will thereby benefit in trade. In addition, although far less important, that freedom will enable others to more easily help him through charity, if they wish to do that.

The Justice Department rejects that approach based on each individual’s right to his own life and responsibility to live it as best he can. They prefer to deny everyone, rather than permit some people to enjoy the benefit of a technology that others cannot fully enjoy at present. In other words, everyone must be held down to the standards of the least capable — in the name of equality of opportunity.

That’s not moral, and it’s not just. It’s insane.

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