October 21st, 2011
The UK’s leading charity supporting blind and partially sighted people RNIB is investigating whether people in the UK might be able to join a US class action against the Walt Disney Company for the alleged inaccessibility of its websites, E-Access Bulletin has learned.
On 29 June, California district judge Dolly Gee gave permission for three blind women – two from Southern California and one from Wichita, Kansas – to proceed with a class action against Disney alleging the company’s websites unlawfully include information which is visible to sighted users but not to screen reader programs, as well as options which are inaccessible to blind people such as the ability to make reservations and download electronic tickets.
Web accessibility is just one of five main areas of complaint being brought in the case, with others including issues in the theme parks themselves such as a lack of Braille maps. The plaintiffs are not seeking money damages, simply an injunction requiring Disney to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act by making its services accessible.
In her ruling judge Gee rejected as irrelevant arguments by Disney that the women could have accessed the same services and information elsewhere, and also rejected arguments that “there is no accepted accessibility standard”. In dismissing the latter argument she pointed out that nearly three years ago — “presumably when website accessibility standards were even less settled” – a similar action was allowed to proceed against the US retailer Target for alleged accessibility problems with its website Target.com.
The three women are represented by Andy Dogali at Florida-based law firm Forizs & Dogali, alongside Los Angeles-based attorney Eugene Feldman, with the case set for trial in Los Angeles in January 2012.
Talking to E-Access Bulletin this week Samantha Fothergill, senior legal policy officer at RNIB, said she had contacted the US lawyers handling the case to see if UK citizens could potentially play any part in adding an international dimension to the case.
“There is no recourse under UK law for the websites as you can only sue a website under the Equality Act if the provider is established in the UK, but because this is an international tourist attraction people from around the world, including Britain, could potentially be part of the US case.
“If so we might be able to find clients who had gone to those resorts, and could make people aware this action is going on – we would not be encouraging them to join, just passing on the information.”
UK class actions are rare in the field of disability law, Fothergill said, not least because all such cases tend to be settled out of court.
“Class actions are often used here in product liability cases but disability lawyers don’t often think in that way. We’ve looked at possibility of class actions but the cases that we have always get settled, so we’ve never really got to that stage.”
Whatever happens, the fact that a company with such a high profile worldwide is being sued anywhere is bound to have an effect on corporate behaviour and lobby campaigns elsewhere, she said.
“The Target case got more publicity probably among IT professionals than it necessarily did among blind people, but this case is more likely to raise the profile of access issues with those responsible for services and websites around the world, which can only be a good thing wherever you are.”
Disney is connected with a huge range of public-facing websites including sites for media partners ESPN and the ABC television network.