PTA President Otha Thornton wimps out on Kindle read-aloud issue, in reply to my Baltimore Sun op-ed

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AmazonPoweredByKindleLogoSo who counts more at National PTA headquarters here in Alexandria, Virginia? Blind kids or Amazon—the seller of the “official” e-reader of the PTA?

A National PTA staffer promised me that the group would be discussing the E Ink Kindles’ missing read-aloud feature in a meaningful way with Amazon. No luck so far, however, if we go by a letter to the editor that PTA President Otha Thornton (photo below) sent the Baltimore Sun. He was trying to rebut my op-ed on the loss of the TTS present in earlier Kindles.

Instead of saying that the National PTA would follow through on the staffer’s promise, Mr. Thornton simply pointed out that the PTA did not require participants in its reading program to use Kindles. OthaThorntonBig deal. In my Sun op-ed, I never said participants lacked alternatives. I did point out, however, that the PTA was endorsing an e-reader without inexpensive features valuable to blind people and those with dyslexia and other challenges. That includes the millions of American children with attention deficit disorders, whom text to speech (TTS) could also help. Regardless, ”Powered by Kindle” is even in the logo for the PTA’s “Family Reading Experience.”

Responding, Mr. Thornton also offered some bland reassurance that the PTA is serving the needs of people with disabilities, and he hailed Amazon for sharing “our passion for reading and supporting family literacy.” Great! But that still doesn’t get either Amazon or the PTA off the hook. Besides TTS, E Ink Kindles could use typographical capabilities helpful to, say, people with dyslexia or readers who fare better with all-text bolding.

Come on, PTA. Do the right thing, and come out swinging on behalf of your members with disabilities.

I’m a fast forgiver. But meanwhile, the more the PTA wimps out on issues like text-to-speech for its “official” e-reader, the less credible this essential organization will be. I hope that Nathan Monell, the new executive director as of May, will understand the connection better than Interim Executive Director Joanne Dunn apparently has so far (may she change her mind!).

blindpeoplepickingamazonSignificantly, the PTA has even refused to let me visit to demonstrate the possibilities of text to speech and improved typography—by way of other devices. Could fear of alienating a corporate partner be a factor? I’m 99 per cent certain. Strong language. But it isn’t as if the PTA was unaware of the problem. The National Federation of the Blind earlier tried in vein to educate it, and if other disability groups and religious organizations can speak up, so much the better.

I doubt the PTA’s image would be enhanced by blind people picketing it, just as NFB members have marched in front of Amazon. I live a few miles from PTA headquarters (KPLU photo). As a sighted sympathizer of NFB, I’ll join in if it comes to this. I fervently hope it doesn’t! The PTA membership of some five million is less than half the peak of more than 12 million—a challenge very much on the minds of the education group’s leaders—and watered-down advocacy will hardly help. Yes, demographics have been a factor. But hardly the only one if the Kindle TTS wimp-out is indicative.

In full, here’s a comment I posted in the online edition of the Sun in response to Mr. Thornton:

I wrote the op-ed on the current E Ink Kindles' disgraceful lack of text to speech.

My article never said Kindles were required for use by participants in the National PTA's terrific reading program. But I did write that the Kindle is the "official" e-reader of the PTA. Does PTA President Otha Thornton's letter imply that his organization will keep unconditionally endorsing the recent E Ink Kindles despite their lack of TTS and other inexpensive features for people with disabilities? Or will the National PTA follow through with a promise made to me by a staff member and discuss these matters in a meaningful way with Amazon? The PTA should ask Amazon to say publicly:

1. When it will add TTS to E Ink Kindles, if at all. To which models? At least the $200 Voyage?

2. Same in regard to all-text bolding, as well as a font for people with dyslexia. Kobo has those typographical features. Doesn't Amazon care? As someone in his 60s, I myself could benefit from all-text bolding to increase the perceived contrast between text and background.

I will be happy to visit the National PTA to demonstrate the missing features, by way of other devices. I've already offered to do this.

Let the PTA continue its wonderful work with Amazon and other corporate partners, but not weaken advocacy for kids and parents, including those with disabilities. Tens of millions of Americans face challenges ranging from blindness to dyslexia and attention deficit disorders. And TTS could help.


David Rothman

Cofounder and Editor-Publisher


Detail:  See PTA-written article in today’s Huffington Post on National Reading Month. The idea for the Month originated elsewhere. But sure enough, a note after the article mentions the PTA reading program  and the “Powered by Kindle” tag line. Looking beyond the free publicity for Amazon—yes, I know corporate sponsors almost always want quid pro quo PR, and I’m a realist—I actually thought that Sherri Wilson’s piece was well done. A senior manager of family and community engagement for the PTA, she told how she was having problems interesting her son in books. Guess which family might have benefited from a Kindle E Ink device with read-aloud? No replacement for parent-to-child reading! But read-aloud is one way to help get kids started on books they might otherwise skip.

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