February 17, 2018

Blind Patrons Sue Philly Library for Loaning Inaccessible Nooks

Four blind patrons of the Free Library of Philadelphia, with the assistance of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), filed suit against the Library in the Federal District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania on May 2 because of a program that loans Nook Simple Touch ereaders to patrons over 50. Unlike some other ereaders, the Nook is unaccessible to blind users. (This report from the Colorado State University Libraries reviews how some of the most common ereading devices stack up when it comes to accessibility.)

In the complaint, plaintiffs Denice Brown, Karen Comorato, Patricia Grebloski, and Antoinette Whaley claim that the library’s choice to purchase and lend Nooks, rather than an accessible ereader, violates Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as American Library Association policy and IMLS regulations. The United States Department of Education issued both a Dear Colleague letter and followup Frequently Asked Questions on the obligation of federally funded institutions to purchase accessible ereaders.

“We cannot comment on this issue because it is part of ongoing litigation,” Alix Gerz, director of communications and brand marketing for the Free Library of Philadelphia Foundation, told LJ. The library has not yet filed a response to the complaint with the court.

Dr. Marc Maurer, president of the NFB, said in a statement, “Libraries … should be purchasing accessible e-book reading devices and demanding that their vendors provide them, not perpetuating the status quo by purchasing inaccessible technology and needlessly relegating their blind and print-disabled patrons to separate and unequal service.” Maurer said the Federation intends to hold any other public library buys and lends inaccessible ereaders to the same standard, presumably by filing lawsuits against them as well.

The Free Library of Philadelphia does include a Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, but books provided through that branch do not come out until much later than the release of regular editions, and many are not available at all.

Meredith Schwartz About Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz (mschwartz@mediasourceinc.com) is Executive Editor of Library Journal.

The Latest Trends in Library Design
Hosted in partnership with Salt Lake County Library and The City Library—at SLCo’s Viridian Center—the newest installment of our library building and design event will let you dig deep with architects, librarians, and vendors to explore building, renovating, and retrofitting spaces to better engage your community.


  1. Maybe I’m missing something that someone can explain to me but how exactly do blind patrons use eReaders that is different from audiobooks (downloadable or physical)?

    • Meredith Schwartz Meredith Schwartz says:

      Part of it is, people who are legally blind but not completely blind can make the text bigger and brighter. Part of it is, while an audio book requires special recording, so only a tiny fraction of titles are produced as audio books, an accessible ebook reader with text-to-speech functionality can read any title to a blind person, and they can get it as soon as anyone else can. They can also search the text, annotate it, copy-paste sections of it (such as to quote in a paper), all of which is difficult or impossible from an audio book.

  2. Why must customers with disabilities always have to fight so hard for the equal acess to library resources when the ALA’s own Bill of Rights advocates for it? The library should have had a serious inquistion, studying the various eReaders’ attributes, before the acquistion, asking the simple question “Which item provide the most opportunities/alternatives for ALL our customers?” From what I’ve observed, it often seems that unless someone with a sight or hearing issue is on the actual selection committee, this portion of our customer base is out-of-sight, out-of-mind. In 2012. Amazing. (The Kindle has text-to-speech capabilities: not always great, but that’s the fault when the publisher applying poor encoding to the content, not a reflection of Amazon’s product.)

  3. Librarian in Texas says:

    In addition to libraries providing equal access to the machines, the electronic manufacturing industry needs to be held accountable. Why can’t they all just make a machine with Text-to-Speech capability? It is a novel concept called Universal Design…accessible to everyone. Arthritics who cannot hold a 2 pound ereader, an over the road truck driver that likes audio books, but has listened to everything his library has to offer, a home owner that likes to listen to books while tending to their garden, or the quadrapallegic Wounded Warrior. Technology should bridge the gap between the Abled and the Disabled and yet we’re still living in as you said above Out of Sight Out of Mind attitudes of the 20th Century. I applaud the Lawsuit and hope there are a lot more, if that is what it takes for the world to wake up.

  4. You know, I’ve been purchasing downloadable ebooks and e-audiobooks for my library for several years now and have never received any info from the NFB on what e-readers will work best for the blind or print-disabled. If the NFB is so upset about this, why didn’t they have a national campaign targeted to libraries about e-reader accessibility? Or send out an email to libraries with recommended e-readers? Or partner with Overdrive? We signed up for the Library eBook Accessibility Program (LEAP) through Overdrive and got no info about accessible e-readers. If I had received info from NFB about what e-readers were recommended for blind patrons, I certainly would have made note — and even included the recommendations in our Overdrive gift guide. But no one can think of everything when it comes to serving patrons, including the NFB, but it seems like the NFB could have done a better job advocating for its members before a lawsuit was necessary.

    • Seems like there’s a big communication gap…the NFB doesn’t send out missives to all libraries, and libraries don’t ask the NFB which readers are best suited for low- to non-vision customers.

  5. Rachel Fewell says:

    Axis 360 by Baker and Taylor are working with the National Federation for the Blind: http://www.thedigitalshift.com/2012/03/ebooks/with-axis-360-baker-taylor-establishes-a-foothold-in-the-ebook-distribution-market/ Coincidentally, Blio and Axis 360 do not work with the Nook.

  6. We don’t even know how the library got the nooks. Grant? Gift? They probaly got them as away to ease seniors into technology, and the bell n’ whistles tablet doen’st exactly do that 9the comparable $79 Kindle doesn’t have text-to-sepeech either). Not every library has Braille books. Or Braille keyboards. Not every library has, or is required to have, ereaders. Many of us don’t have the money. So I’m not really sure why we’re suddenly being threatened with being sued by the NFB for failures to follow laws that don’t really exist. We don’t know if they even tried talking to the library first, or just smelled a PR opportunity and lawyered up. Or, crazy nation, how about offering some tech grants NFB?

  7. William Gargan says:

    So does that mean the Library shouldn’t buy books and dvds either because blind patrons are unable to use them?

  8. Aaron Cannon says:

    Not sure what you’re talking about. I’m totally blind and I use DVDs and print books all the time. With DVDs I listen to the audio, and with print books, I scan them and use OCR software so my computer can read it to me.

  9. To me, this is ridiculous. I don’t know a single library that offers all of it’s print books in Braille or audio (many books aren’t even made in either format). Why should a library have to provide something that does that in digital format, if not in physical format? While I do agree that there should be options available for those with disabilities, audiobooks should be loaded onto e-readers when possible, is it really something a library should be sued over? Most of those I know with vision disabilities dislike the text-to-speech option found on e-readers like Kindles. They read like robots, not like a per-recorded audiobook. To me this just screams as something sneaky Amazon would do to try to knock the competition out of the way.