The U.S. Department of Education, in partnership with the Department of Justice has been dealing with the issue since 2010. The lawsuit, assisted by the National Federation of the Blind, bases its case in part on guidelines set forth in a letter to college presidents by the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights:
A serious problem with some of these devices is that they lack an accessible text-to-speech function. Requiring use of an emerging technology in a classroom environment when the technology is inaccessible to an entire population of individuals with disabilities – individuals with visual disabilities – is discrimination prohibited by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) unless those individuals are provided accommodations or modifications that permit them to receive all the educational benefits provided by the technology in an equally effective and equally integrated manner.
Amazon's Kindle e-readers do have text-to-speech capabilities, but even this does not fully meet the requirements of the law. According to a settlement reached with Arizona State University in 2010, "the Kindle DX is at present inaccessible to blind individuals because the menus and controls are displayed visually only, with no audio option. Although the Kindle DX can render the text of books audibly using text-to-speech (“TTS”) technology, blind individuals cannot configure settings, select books, or even turn on the TTS feature because the menus and controls lack TTS."
The Philadelphia Free Library purchased 65 Nook Simple Touch e-readers last year with money that included $25,000 in federal grants. The e-readers are available to users 50 and older, and are aimed at helping to bridge the generational 'digital divide.' Ironically, e-readers are a boon to those with aging eyes, thanks to the ability to change font size.
There is no perfect solution to this problem. For one thing, not all publishers allow text-to-speech technology in their e-books, so there will never be full parity with a sighted person using an e-reader. A second consideration is the cost: enabling a blind person to use an e-reader on par with a sighted person necessitates both text-to-speech and some means of accessing and manipulating the controls, which at this point would seem to require an iPad. The following video makes the comparison:
Of course, iPads cost hundreds of dollars more that do Nooks or Kindles. Libraries would be forced to severely curtail their e-reader lending programs if they were required to make every device fully accessible. The obvious solution is to purchase both types of devices, according to the needs of any particular library system's patron base. I have no doubt that the wizard developers at Barnes & Noble, Amazon and other tech companies are working on a way to make their devices accessible to all in the nearest possible future.