Special software can help the blind access the internet, but not every website supports it

Abdel Jimenez
Chicago Tribune

Chicago – Jose Martinez has been thwarted when buying concert tickets online. He changed banks after finding his financial institution’s mobile app wouldn’t work for him. Sometimes, when he can’t finalize a purchase on an e-commerce site, he simply takes his business elsewhere.

Martinez, 37, is legally blind. The Chicago resident uses screen-reading software on his computer that converts text into descriptive speech, a technology that has made it possible for him to live independently.

“I live alone … I want to make my life as practical as possible,” Martinez said.

But not every website is compatible with the software Martinez and visually impaired consumers across the country use. There is no federal law requiring businesses to design websites that work with the tools blind and deaf consumers use to navigate the internet. Nor are there any federal guidelines on how to create one. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires companies to make accommodations for individuals with disabilities, but it was signed in 1990 when the internet was nascent, and it does not address websites.

Jose Martinez tests a website on his phone for its accessibility to visually impaired people at Chicago Lighthouse on November 19, 2019. Martinez, who is legally blind, works for the Lighthouse's accessibility consulting project, which helps businesses make sure their websites meet global accessibility standards.

As the internet has become an increasingly integral part of daily life, with everything from shopping and dating services to job applications moving online, there is a growing push to get companies to make their sites usable by all. But businesses and trade groups say that’s a costly, complex ask, and because of the lack of federal standards, it’s unclear how best to make the technological changes.

As a result, the number of lawsuits filed over companies’ websites is growing. This year more than 2,200 cases have been filed in federal courts compared with 814 cases in 2017, according to UseableNet, a New York firm that helps businesses make their websites and mobile phone apps more suitable.

As the populace grows older and more Americans encounter age-related vision problems, the issue will become even more pressing, experts say.

“People access the world now through smart devices,” said Samantha Evans, certification manager at the International Association of Accessibility Professionals. Efforts seek to give consumers “an equitable experience online,” she said.

Because the federal government has not imposed website accessibility standards, the issue has largely been left to the courts, and legal watchers say a suit filed against Domino’s Pizza may have opened the floodgates.

In October the U.S. Supreme Court denied Domino’s Pizza’s petition asking it to review a lower court ruling in a suit brought by a blind California man. The lawsuit alleges Domino’s violated the ADA by not having a website and mobile app that worked with screen-reading software. The denial left in place a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that allowed the blind man’s lawsuit to move forward.

In its request to the Supreme Court, Domino’s warned, “Left undisturbed, the Ninth Circuit’s decision would turn the flood of litigation into a tsunami.”

According to UseableNet, an average of 40 cases challenging website accessibility were filed each week after the Domino’s case, compared with about 30 case filings a week just before the Domino’s decision.

Demand letters – formal notices in which consumers ask companies to rectify the problem – are also on the rise, said UseableNet’s Chief Innovation Officer Jason Taylor.

Tim McIntyre, executive vice president of communication for Domino’s, said in an email the company has developed other features to help disabled customers, like voice-activated ordering devices and a hotline that customers with screen-readers can use to report difficulties with the site.

McIntyre also pointed to the lack of federal guidelines. “We also remain steadfast in our belief in the need for federal standards for everyone to follow in making their websites and mobile apps accessible,” he wrote.

In 2010, the Justice Department said it was starting to develop guidelines that would govern website design, but the rules were never released.

Most companies and web developers use an unofficial set of recommendations known as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. Evans, of the International Association of Accessibility Professionals, said those unofficial rules serve as a placeholder until federal standards are developed.

Websites that can’t accommodate screen-readers trip up the visually impaired in a number of ways. One issue is the graphic icons that are used to prompt action or convey information.

For example, when someone is ordering pizza online, an image of pizza may direct users to the purchasing web page, but that image might not have descriptive text coding behind it that can be converted into speech.

Also, website captcha programs, which require users to verify their identity by typing in a series of letters and numbers, are incompatible with screen-readers.

Sheri Byrne-Haber, head of accessibility for VMware, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based software company, says magnification problems are one of her peeves. Some images become blurry when she enlarges them.

“It’s hard to zoom in and read the text. When I do, it all comes up pixelated,” said Byrne-Haber, 54, a San Francisco-area resident.

Byrne-Haber has glaucoma, an eye condition that causes vision loss, and she often needs to magnify text in order to read it. If she struggles with a website, she often moves on.

“I just go somewhere else. Sometimes if I have the energy to complain, I will bring it up to their accessibility department, but sometimes I won’t,” she said.

The glitches the visually impaired sometimes encounter when navigating the internet can be limiting.

“Some banking sites are not accessible. A large majority of work application forms are hard to get to. It’s even hard to read politician’s websites. People can’t even learn about their candidates if you can’t access their websites,” said Evans, of the accessibility professionals group.

Some business and trade groups argue that organizations’ websites shouldn’t be a form of public accommodation.

Fixing a website is not easy, and the costs can vary depending on how complex a company’s site is, said Stephanie Martz, senior vice president and general counsel of the National Retail Federation, which filed a friend of the court brief supporting Domino’s.

“The problem with the law is that there is no set of legal standards,” Martz said. “It’s difficult to avoid liability even when they have gone through the compliance effort to make their websites work with screen-readers.”