The Free Library of Philadelphia has been hit with a lawsuit by a group of blind patrons who claim that a new e-reading device lending program for older library users is “completely inaccessible to its blind patrons.”

Attorney David Rudovsky, of the Philadelphia firm Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg, along with a handful of attorneys from the Baltimore, Md. firm Brown, Goldstein & Levy, filed the civil action May 2 at the U.S. District Court in Philadelphia.

The lawsuit claims that the city’s library system developed the NOOK e-reading device lending program as a way to “bridge the digital divide” between young and old patrons, but in doing so it has “needlessly exacerbated the ‘digital divide’ between disabled and non-disabled library patrons.”

The complaint states that because modern-day technology is capable of offering blind individuals greater access to books and other reading materials that were traditionally only available in print, the library system has the “statutory responsibility” to ensure that it offers “fully accessible e-reading technology.”

But the Free Library of Philadelphia failed to do just that when it rolled out its e-reading pilot program, the complaint alleges, instead choosing to lend “inaccessible devices” to blind patrons.

The lawsuit claims that the library’s activities discriminate against blind patrons and “segregates them needlessly from its programs and activities.”

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of four older library patrons: Denice Brown, a 54-year-old retired elementary school teacher; Patricia Grebloski, a 70-year-old who has worked in the insurance and medical transcription industries; Antoinette Whaley, a 66-year-old who worked as a mathematician and computer scientist at the National Security Agency; and Karen Comorato, 57, whose work history isn’t given, but who is said to enjoy utilizing the library.

Brown, Grebloski and Comorato are from Philadelphia while Whaley is from Ardmore, Pa.

All four are library members.

The lawsuit claims that despite having been warned several times throughout the year that it must acquire only “accessible technology,” it initiated an e-reading lending program in November 2011 that violates federal law.

The program, unveiled at the library’s central branch in downtown Philadelphia, offers what the lawsuit calls several dozen “inaccessible” NOOK Simple Touch e-reading devices for loan to library patrons 50 years of age or older.

The library received $25,000 in federal funding to start up the program, the suit states.

The federal Institute of Museum and Library Services, through which the funds were administered, requires grantees to comply with provisions of the federal Rehabilitation Act, which state that handicapped people cannot be denied the opportunity to participate in or benefit from services and programs offered by the entity.

The lawsuit claims that the Free Library of Philadelphia did precisely that when it purchased 65 “inaccessible” NOOK devices when accessible alternatives were available.

The lawsuit claims that the National Federation of the Blind sent the library system a letter in December 2011 detailing the accessibility problems of the e-reading lending program and urged the library to enter into discussions to find an “amicable resolution” that would serve all library patrons, but that the library never responded to the letter.

“Ignoring its legal obligations, the Library has announced plans to expand its NOOK lending program by making NOOK devices available for loan at four additional branches,” the lawsuit states.

The suit claims that plaintiff Brown had trouble using the NOOK device she borrowed on March 28 of this year, and that plaintiff Grebloski became frustrated with a librarian’s response to her request to obtain newer books not yet available through the braille and talking book library branch.

Grebloski, who on April 19 had visited the Philadelphia City Institute Branch, was looking to take out a NOOK device, but the supervising librarian informed her NOOK’s don’t have audio and questioned why she would want to check out a device that she would not be able to use.

In addition to claims of violating the Rehabilitation Act, the lawsuit also accuses the Free Library of Philadelphia of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The plaintiffs seek declaratory judgment and also ask the court to issue an injunction preventing the library from lending any inaccessible e-book reading devices to its patrons.


The federal case number is 2:12-cv-02373-MSG. 

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