January 31st, 2014
Readers who have travelled by air in the past few years are likely to have come across new technologies designed to enhance the convenience of travel such as automated kiosks where people can check in without queuing for hours in a barely-moving queue of bored passengers.
As so often with new technologies, however, it seems that their accessibility for people with disabilities was not always considered when they were first being developed. And now, in the US, the issue is about to hit the courts.
Earlier this month, US-based charity and campaigning organisation the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) filed a lawsuit against the country’s Department of Transportation claiming the department’s new regulations on the accessibility of airport check-in kiosks breach discrimination legislation.
The law the NFB claims has been violated is the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), passed in 1986 to ban discrimination against air travel passengers with disabilities. As part of its duties to comply with this act, the DoT issued the new accessibility regulations which came into effect in December 2013. However, the NFB claims the new rules do not go far enough, and hence do not comply with the law.
So, what is the detail of the federation’s case?
The regulations are split into two separate sections. The first covers website accessibility, requiring airlines to make all public-facing content on their websites compliant with level ‘AA’ of the international World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 by 12 December 2016 – three years after the regulations took effect.
But although the NFB did express frustration back in November at what they called an “overly generous” time period back for website improvements, they are not challenging this timescale in the courts – in fact, their current legal action relates to the second part of the DoT regulations, regarding airline check-in kiosks.
This states that at least 25% of all existing check-in kiosks in an airport must be made accessible to disabled passengers by December 2023, including the display screen, inputs and outputs, instructions and floor space. However this is a timescale which the federation does believe is so long as to be unreasonable.
It claims that offering a compliance period as long as 10 years means that the DoT is failing to implement the ACAA as it was intended, and is therefore breaking the law.
In a statement explaining the decision to take legal action, NFB president Marc Maurer said that the technology to make airline check-in kiosks accessible to visually impaired passengers is “readily available” and is already in use in bank cash machines and other types of kiosk across the US. “The Department of Transportation violated the law by allowing continued discrimination against blind passengers based on spurious assertions by the airline industry that making kiosks accessible will cost too much and take a decade”, Maurer said.
The NFB has also published details of how it says kiosks can be more quickly made accessible in the same way as bank machines and other devices, such as: “affixing Braille labels, installing headphone jacks and adding speech software that provides audio prompts to the user.”
As yet, there has been no word on how – or if – any court action might proceed, or any response from the DoT. But this is not the first time that the NFB have pursued legal action over this issue. In 2011, the charity filed a lawsuit against Las Vegas McCarran International Airport on behalf of four blind passengers, claiming its self-service kiosks were inaccessible due to the visual-only instructions on their screens.
As in so many sectors, website accessibility is also an ongoing issue. In 2012 the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) sued low-cost airline bmibaby.com (now no longer active), claiming that customers with sight-loss were unable to use the company’s website to search for and book flights, as it was only possible to do so using a mouse.
Several months after initiating legal action, RNIB reported that bmibaby.com had made changes to its website which improved its accessibility, enabling visually impaired customers to book flights online, and withdrew its case.
So the new action keeps up the pressure on the airline industry: legal action may not be frequent, but it does keep coming, and organisations representing disabled travellers will continue to push for governments to fully implement their own anti-discrimination laws.