Why much of the internet is closed off to blind people

Why much of the internet is closed off to blind people
Each swipe 17-year-old Maysie Gonzales makes on her smart phone is accompanied by what sounds like the famous Stephen Hawking voice barking out orders at a relentless pace.

"Sometimes I speed it up to 350 words a minute, it depends what mood I am in," says Ms Gonzales, who lost her sight when she was two years old through retinal cancer.

Screen readers translate on-screen information into speech or Braille. They have broken open the internet for people who are blind or visually impaired, and for those with other disabilities. But the device only works effectively on websites that are compatible.

"Sometimes it can be horrible, it depends on how the website has been set up," says Ms Gonzales.

If a website's digital infrastructure hasn't been correctly labelled, a blind person can be met with a barrage of "button! - button! - button!" or "link 1,752! - link 1,752! - link 1,752!" from that hyperactive mechanical-sounding voice. Hence the case Guillermo Robles, who is blind, brought against Domino's Pizza after he was unable to use his screen reader to use the company's website and mobile app.

A federal court agreed with him, and now Domino's has petitioned the Supreme Court to hear Robles' case, in what could prove a landmark battle over the rights of disabled people on the internet.

"This isn't just about ordering the likes of pizza or surfing Amazon," says Chris Danielson, a representative with the National Federation of the Blind (NFB).

 "People are doing everything online nowadays, so it's about blind people being able to access the likes of online banking, applying for employment and doing the necessary online tests, accessing cloud-based tools in the workplace, and all the rest."

It's estimated that 7,600,000 Americans are technically blind - about 2.4% of the population - according to the NFB.

"We've even been told by businesses before that they understand, but the fact is blind people are not a very big market," Mr Danielson says. "That's what we are dealing with."

Nowadays signs designating access for shoppers with disabilities - from parking spaces to restrooms to dressing rooms - are a ubiquitous part of the retail landscape.
This is thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the 29-year-old federal law that prohibits discrimination based on disability. But ADA requirements that are relatively clear when applied to physical stores - such as determining where ramps should go and what height grab bars should be - become much more difficult to discern with a website.

"The online environment was never intended to be covered by the ADA," says Stephanie Martz, senior vice-president and general counsel for the National Retail Federation (NRF), which along with other business groups like the Chamber of Commerce and the Restaurant Law Center has come out supporting Domino's.

"The ADA took effect before the internet as we know it today existed, and more than 25 years later there is no clear objective guidance on what constitutes an 'accessible' website. There's not enough clarity in the law to know what is accountable."

But advocates like Mr Danielson counter that if one follows that logic then the whole US Constitution could be undermined."If a 30-year-old law is deemed out of date and
not applicable then that applies to a whole lot of laws."

As e-commerce has grown, retailers are increasingly faced with ADA lawsuits over lack of accessibility, particularly for the blind or visually impaired. Website accessibility lawsuits hit a record high in 2018, with retail being the most frequently targeted industry. More lawsuits were filed in court in the first six months of 2018 (1,053) than in all of 2017 (814), according to the NRF.

The likes of Visa and Target have lost such lawsuits, and earlier this year a class-action was filed against Beyoncé's official website, alleging that Beyonce.com violates the ADA by denying visually impaired users equal access to its products and services.

"To be fair to businesses," Mr Danielson says, "there are lawyers taking advantage of the situation, but cutting the legs from under the ADA is an overcorrection… and stops the flow of legitimate plaintiffs."

Ultimately, those pushing for digital accessibility argue that businesses have no excuse for dragging their feet over it.

"It's not hard to do, it should just be part of best practice, not an additional line item, just like making sure a website loads quickly is," says Laura Kalbag, a website designer and author of Accessibility for Everyone.

"It basically just involves HTML coding, which even a blogger can do. If it is a huge website, it might take some time, but the work itself is not complicated." Continue...

James Koroma

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