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Blind User Sues Southwest Over Web Site, Cites ADA 1205

Posted by timothy
from the welcome-to-quebec dept.
scubacuda writes "According to Law.com, Robert Gumson, a blind man who uses a program that converts website content into speech, is suing Southwest Airlines (with the help of Miami Beach, FL-based Access Now) for its website being incompatible with his screen-reader program. The case has been filed under the Americans with Disabilities Act under the untested legal theory that ADA provisions on the accessibility of public accommodations to the disabled apply to Internet Web sites just as they do to brick-and-mortar facilities like movie theaters and department stores. There have been previous lawsuits alleging that the ADA applies to the Internet, but all have settled without a ruling on the merits: 1999 the National Federation of the Blind sued AOL alleging its service was inaccessible to blind users (AOL agreed to make its sites compatible with screen reader technology); over the past two years, Access Now has sued Barnes & Noble and Claire's Stores for maintaining Web sites that allegedly violated the ADA (both settled)."
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Blind User Sues Southwest Over Web Site, Cites ADA

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  • standards (Score:5, Informative)

    by proj_2501 (78149) <mkb@ele.uri.edu> on Sunday October 06, 2002 @09:29PM (#4399648) Journal
    This why html standards exist. XHTML requires all img tags to have alt="" attributes, which several images on the southwest web page do NOT have. These images seem to be the only links to any other functions on the first page.
  • by sellout (4894) <greg@technomadic.org> on Sunday October 06, 2002 @09:34PM (#4399668) Homepage

    I think this is something that site designers should be aware of, so here are a few links to pages that discuss Web accessibility.

    I hope that helps those of you who are interested.

  • by Millennium (2451) on Sunday October 06, 2002 @09:53PM (#4399781) Homepage
    That's what standards are for.

    Truth be told, if the browser makers and page designers would get off their collective rears and support the standards right, there wouldn't even be a need for screen readers. You'd be surprised at just what HTML and CSS can do for layout; they far surpass anything tables can do, in a browser that actually knows what it's doing. And yet, if you structure your text in a sane, structural manner, an aural browser won't even need to read the screen; it can just speak the text outright. There's even a section of CSS which can be used to alter voice, position, and other aspects of sound.

    Luckily, the browser makers are finally starting to get things right, even if they're four years late. Perhaps eventually the Web will recover from the bastardization of HTML that came with the advent of 4.x browsers and table-based layouts. The sooner this happens, the better for designers, users, and everyone else.
  • by r_weaver (563014) on Sunday October 06, 2002 @09:55PM (#4399791)
    I've seen the "It's stupid to put Braille on Drive up ATM's" topic rehashed several times in this thread.

    Think about it -- a visually impaired person is not going to drive himself to the ATM, right? So how is he going to get there? Perhaps a Taxi? Should he have to rely on the Taxi driver to retrieve his money from the ATM? Or should he sit at home and wait for a trusted friend to take him so the bank doesn't have to pay the extra $20 for Braille signage on its $20,000 ATM machine? Or maybe he should have to make the walk to to a walk-up ATM with proper signage? Afterall, he's disabled so he should have to walk like the rest of us, right?

    And for those that wonder what good the Braille does in the first place if a person can't read the screen: most of the ATM's for a particular bank use the same UI (and they publish guidebooks to document it), but the formfactor differs from machine to machine, so it's nice to have labels for the card slot, depository slot, etc. Check here [systechdisplays.com] for some Braille ATM sign samples.

  • by clifyt (11768) <[moc.liamg] [ta] [rettamkinos]> on Sunday October 06, 2002 @10:23PM (#4399944) Homepage
    Bullshit. Extortion? Do you really know what it takes to be compliant? Not too much. I asked for and received an ADA manual last time I was renovating my office (gov't sent one without charge) and TOLD my employeer we were going to be ADA compliant even if it bankrupted up (not likely, we are a small department in a much larger organization).

    What did it take? We ordered a few signs that had braile on them, made sure the aisleways were wide enough to accomodate a wheel chair and got a few tables that were articulating to accomidate the wheelchairs to get under them. Computer terminals were made it be sure that they had the standard ADA compliant software on them (Windows and Macs come with most of this and most of these folks know how to activate them if they ask).

    Get the problem fixed before hand and you won't have to worry about someone suing you. All in all, it cost me about a grand for the extra equipment AND a disabilities advocate was able to meet with me to make sure we were in compliance as much as possible for free. Since doing this 3 years ago, I've had to accomodate 2 people. Were they worth the $500 a piece that it cost me? Probably not from a profit centered notion, BUT it was money well spent.

    Get the shit done and don't put it off as something to do later, and you won't get sued. If you do and you are sued later, you've made a good faith effort to try to be accomodating. You can't please everyone and you can't expect every situation to be convered but you can try your best.

    clif
  • by EarTrumpet (85772) on Sunday October 06, 2002 @10:26PM (#4399955)
    Sure the ADA has some good effects. But it's also being used as a tool of extortion against small businesses. An attorney will team up with a disabled person (typically someone wheelchair bound) who will go into a business and find something that doesn't accomodate his disability. The attorney then slaps the business with an ADA suit. Under the ADA, the attorney can bill $275 the moment the suit is filed.

    Not true. The ADA specifically excludes damages. The most someone can legally get out of an ADA suit is correction of the barrier. Nowhere in the ADA will you find that an "attorney can bill for $275". If your lawyer told you that, you need to find a new lawyer.

  • by jjh37997 (456473) on Sunday October 06, 2002 @10:28PM (#4399971) Homepage
    You know, not everything has to be graphics and flash cartoons. I remember the day (God, do I sound old) when all good websites had a plain text link for people with slow modems and vision problems. Hell, I use to browse the Web with lynx!

    Normally I don't like lawsuits but if it will force designers to make pages that not only look nice but are usable then I'm all for it.

  • Re:All Sites (Score:3, Informative)

    by quinto2000 (211211) on Sunday October 06, 2002 @10:41PM (#4400065) Homepage Journal
    I believe the ADA applies to companies with > 15 employees.
  • by silentbozo (542534) on Sunday October 06, 2002 @10:48PM (#4400109) Journal
    Keep in mind, just because someone is legally blind doesn't mean that they cannot see.

    There are various levels of visual impairment, from no vision at all from birth, to blindness caused by accident,medical condition, or age that allows some function (light, color perception). Some can see with the aid of magnifying utilities, others must use screen readers.

    With ATMs, the auditory beep can serve as feedback, and REALLY big letters/numbers can be used. For example, Citibank touch-screen ATMs have been vision-disabled friendly for almost two decades. I know this because I accidentally enabled "blind person" mode one time about 10 years ago, which blanked out the screen, and turned the different corners of the screen into input controls. What kind of input controls, I have no idea, since I can't read braille. I had to wait for the ATM to time out, before it reverted back to a GUI.

    Braille on the keypad (and usually on the machine - the instructions) are common because in this country we believe in making certain accomodations people with impairments, so they can be productive members of society. I guess the rationale is that life dealt them a shitty enough hand without them having to fend for themselves when doing basic daily chores. Given that using the web is starting to fall into the level of needed service (like electricity, water, sewer, telephone), I don't blame the guy for suing to make sure that businesses don't get lazy and decide to ignore that there are people who use the web as a non-visual medium.

    BTW, the Citibank ATMs have also handled multiple languages for a LONG time. I used to think it was silly too, until I saw a string of Japanese tourists one summer, using the japanese language interface...
  • Re:Legal wrangling (Score:5, Informative)

    by Waffle Iron (339739) on Sunday October 06, 2002 @10:55PM (#4400148)
    In short if the court rules that ADA applies to websites, unless the court is very specific to how it applies, all commercial websites regardless of size would be subject to the ruling...ouch!!!

    That would suit me fine. Those features on a website that are most likely to break screen readers tend to be the exact same features that are the most annoying, unnecessary and browser incompatible.

  • Re:standards (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday October 06, 2002 @10:56PM (#4400153)
    There's a lot more to accessability then alt attributes. Tables also have to be properly marked up (including a summary attribute in the <table> tag, id attribute in <th> tag, and a header attribute in <tr> tag).

    A plain ASCII or <pre> formatted table won't work for the blind. PostScript is out and only acrobat 5 supports proper tagging of PDFs. I don't believe ps2pdf does the Right Thing (correct me if I'm wrong).

    I work for the Federal Government and we have to follow Section 508 [usdoj.gov] guidelines. We have an entire unit devoted to this stuff at my agency and they have to thoroughly test everything. The days of just popping up a PDF are over.

    I have a lot of historical data that I'd like to publish on my site. In some cases, I'd like to just scan in tables and post them. However, the scan would not be readable by screen reading software, so it'd have to go through OCR and proof read, then put into a compliant table format. Do I have that in my budget? Fugitaboutit. So it doesn't get posted.
  • Re:blah (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday October 06, 2002 @10:58PM (#4400164)
    Um, the ADA does not allow for the collection of individual monetary damages, only "equitable" relief which is the legal-ese way of saying the judgment will be that the offending party (the business) has to make reasonable accommodations to its facility (website in this case). The disabled person, contrary to myth and legend, doesn't become a millionaire.
  • by FredGray (305594) on Sunday October 06, 2002 @11:07PM (#4400207) Homepage
    Well, I think it's reasonable to expect it to do exactly what lynx does:

    [toptail.gif] [1x1.gif] [reservations_mm0.gif] [1x1.gif]
    [schedules_mm0.gif] [1x1.gif] [fares_mm0.gif] [1x1.gif]
    [click_n_save_mm0.gif] [1x1.gif] [travel_center_mm0.gif] [1x1.gif]
    [rapid_rewards_mm0.gif] [1x1.gif] [endmenu.gif]

    ...which is actually fairly intelligible. Yes, you select "reservations_mm0.gif" to go to the reservations page.

  • by cheezedawg (413482) on Sunday October 06, 2002 @11:34PM (#4400347) Journal
    Granted, this guy might be money-hungry. However, previous cases show that the companies that were sued (AOL in particular) settle by making their site accessbile to screen readers. In all likely hood, that is all this guy wants. That's all any blind person wants.

    The ADA doesn't allow for any monetary damages. Under the ADA, you can only sue to force compliance.
  • by bm_luethke (253362) <luethkeb@comcaCU ... minus physicist> on Monday October 07, 2002 @12:39AM (#4400727)
    Unfortunatly it's not always that easy. For example, at our local gun club we had a "bubble boy" (I don't remeber the technical name) want to shoot at the range. Since I would bet a large portion here doesn't really fruequent gun clubs I will explain an important detail: they are messy. It's just a part of running one. Unfortunatly it is POSSIBLE to clean one to the point that bubble boy could shoot. Under the ADA, which he filed suit, we had to accomodate him (clean the entier range, provide some form of habitate thing for him, give him exclusive use of the club for a day). The club it self is non-profit: every penny we make is spent back into the club. It has no real assest with which to render a fine from, not enough money to clean to level he needed, and no volunteers to do so (we don't even own the land, we sub-lease from the state who leases from the federal govt). So in the end he dropped the suit though legally he could have shut us down (as complyence was not going to happen and we had no money to he could get from us).

    We do have things such as wheel chair access to everything, we have had in the past one paralyzed person shoot (and they were damn good shot also) and several people with legg problems. Those types of requests in most cases are reasonable and should be inforced (ours were built well before the ADA was passed) but bubble boy was not really a good use of the law(he apperently found another club with deeper pockets to sue).

    If all complience meant was what you stated above then there would be little complaint (and those cases are not really complained about - most people would tend to side with the disabled: I would). Unfortunatly the law, such as many others (federal wetlands, DMCA, etc) may or may not have had good intentions, but the end results was a VERY broad law that is used in ways the people who passed the law did not intend.
  • Re:About time (Score:2, Informative)

    by cddelgado (614243) <delgadocd06@NospaM.uww.edu> on Monday October 07, 2002 @01:06AM (#4400833) Homepage

    Speaking of Bobby...

    If you go to http://bobby.cast.org and enter http://www.southwestairlines.com into the form field, we will find the current problems on their home page.

    Their results Priority 1 problems (Fix these absolutely necessary things. Everyone should do these things"

    • Provide alternate text for images (44 instances)
      * The rule of thumb is that if your image is useless and unimportant, put a space as the alt text.

    Priority 1 user checks (things that cant be checked by Bobby)

    • If you can't make your page accessible, make an alternate version -- so make a simple clean text only page
    • Provide alternate content for each SCRIPT that conveys important information or functionality.
    • If you use color to convey important info, find another way to do so
    • If this is a data table (it's not) identify headers
    • If images are really important, use an extended description
    • If (a data) table has two or more headers, mark them up additionally.
    • Identify the document's language
    • Use simple and straight-forward language.

    Now, this is what they must comply with to meet the bare minimum accessibility guideline.

    The scripts on this page are unimportant and provide no information -- hence no noscript tag. Add alt=" " to all of the spacer images. They have no data tables, they're all for layout. To identify the language of the document, all they need to do is specify body lang="en" ... that's it. (They might need to add span lang="es" for the "Haz clic aqui" button.)

    That's one page down. Forms are a little harder, but I do not see a single thing that would cause undue stress or harm to their web team. So they made a mistake and didn't do some basic things -- that's okay. So here's what's wrong guys -- just fix it already.

  • Re:All Sites (Score:3, Informative)

    by dbrutus (71639) on Monday October 07, 2002 @01:23AM (#4400916) Homepage
    Actually, there's been a braille edition of Playboy [playboy.com] available since at least 1970. At least Playboy says so.
  • Re:Interesting (Score:4, Informative)

    by dasmegabyte (267018) <das@OHNOWHATSTHISdasmegabyte.org> on Monday October 07, 2002 @02:08AM (#4401070) Homepage Journal
    Those are for blind people who take cabs. I've seen it...cab pulls up to atm, blind man in rear seat uses ATM.

    But it is much more fun to make a joke than to solve the puzzle, Alex.
  • by dbrutus (71639) on Monday October 07, 2002 @02:36AM (#4401129) Homepage
    When I went through the site, I couldn't find any pages with alt tags at all. Perhaps we're looking at different pages?

    How hard is it to run every page through an html validator?

    The company has a fiduciary responsibility to its shareholders to maximize long term profits while staying true to the company charter. Management, when it fails to do that (and I think they are in this case) is not just serving customers poorly but their shareholders as well.
  • by mdechene (607874) on Monday October 07, 2002 @03:08AM (#4401197)
    Actually, /. Posted a story awhile back about people who made a mod for blind people to play quake. Here [slashdot.org] is the link.
  • by shepd (155729) <[moc.liamg] [ta] [gro.todhsals]> on Monday October 07, 2002 @03:33AM (#4401244) Homepage Journal
    >We ordered a few signs that had braile on them

    Easy to do. Easy to miss one. Even by accident. Ooops... Men's room has a braille sign, but the ladies doesn't? You're screwed.

    >made sure the aisleways were wide enough to accomodate a wheel chair

    I guess you've never worked in a heritage building before. Or one with cinder block walls. This can be damn hard and expensive, and depending on the business and the amount of hallways, could be handled by the disabled person asking a salesclerk "I'd like to look at the xyz over there...".

    >and got a few tables that were articulating to accomidate the wheelchairs to get under them.

    Not too bad.

    >Computer terminals were made it be sure that they had the standard ADA compliant software on them

    Great... so now a company running an AS/400 has to throw away all the dumb terminals and buy an expensive and non-functional windows system. The Banks would be pleased at this, I'm sure.

    >You can't please everyone and you can't expect every situation to be convered but you can try your best.

    And when you don't please everyone you get sued. Yaay...
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday October 07, 2002 @05:05AM (#4401443)
    Out of curiousity on how much work would be involved to populate the ALT tags on the www.southwest.com airlines website, I discovered the following statistics:

    According to the HTTP header for requests on port 80 and 443 (SSL), SouthWest is using Netscape-Enterprise/3.6 SP3. Since the latest version is 6.0 SP4, I would not trust their website to be secure (SSL does not matter if the dated web server has security holes).

    The website was retrieved using "wget -r -l 1000 http://www.southwest.com/" Although wget honors restrictions stated in the robots.txt file, it only disallowed cgi-bin.

    The recursive fetch of the website contains the follow file make up:
    811 html files
    571 gif files
    258 jpg files
    18 pdf files
    5 other file formats

    The html files contain:
    14 unique cgi-bin references
    34,713 total IMG tags
    682 IMG tags with ALT attribute (less than 2%)

    The remaining 34,031 IMG tags without an ALT attribute contain only 364 unique references.

    Hence, I believe I could write a sed script to update each HTML file to contain the approbate ALT text for every IMG tag in less than 7 hours. I would be willing to do the work for $500 provided that I was also contracted for another $500 to install a licensed copy of Netscape-Enterprise/Sun ONE Enterprise Web Server v6.0 SP4 ($1,495) and install the latest Solaris 8 recommended patch cluster (although the web server update is a seprate issue, I don't like to leave a job/situation half done). I would have to be able to see the 14 cgi scripts before deciding how much to charge to modify them to also output approbate ALT text but I would imagine that would be under $1,000.

    In the end, I believe that SouthWest airlines has saved approx. $3,500 by violating the HTMLv4 specification requiring ALT attributes for every IMG tag and by continuing to run an outdated version of Netscape-Enterprise web server. Considering that a lawsuit will probably cost them over 30 times that amount, hopefully they will learn to be willing to spend the money in the future to keep their files and software up to date.
  • Re:All Sites (Score:5, Informative)

    by blibbleblobble (526872) on Monday October 07, 2002 @06:32AM (#4401583)
    Full text of the act [usdoj.gov] -- now if only the DOJ would actually learn HTML and/or writing skills.

    "Heh, we're so web-savvy, we just dumped 160Kb of unformatted crap on our website"
  • by pease1 (134187) <bbunge@ladyanDEG ... om minus painter> on Monday October 07, 2002 @08:07AM (#4401791)
    US Government webmasters are required to meet basic accessibility "standards" through what is called "Section 508".

    Companies that want to make their sites more accessible, but don't want to build their own standards could always adopt the 508 standards and perhaps pick up some legal cover in the process.

    Most of the rules are basic. It does hamstring you out of some of the more sexy things (flash is difficult) but it also keeps you true (you tend not to waste taxpayer's $$$ having to make silly flash intros).

    If you have diehard GUI html designers in your shop, there are several plug-ins for Dreamweaver (and others) that force the code to be 508 compliant. Vi can write 508 code just fine.

    Many COTS vendors now also have 508 compliant versions of their s/w, otherwise they can't sell to government.

    To learn more, good place to start is the Section 508 [section508.gov] homepage.

  • by benzapp (464105) on Monday October 07, 2002 @09:11AM (#4402024)
    I would love to see your reference to the code on that one.

    The law excludes PUNITIVE damages, but not damages. The entire purpose of the civil justice system is damages, the idea that one party was wronged by another, and to make him whole by collecting damages. What also follows is that the loser pays the winner's attorney fees.

    Punitive damages are damages that are above and beyond what is necessary to make the plaintiff whole. They are punitive, in they are intended to discourage others from behaving in a similar manner. These are not allowed under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

    If damages were disallowed, one could not file suit. There are many examples of these kinds of laws. Instead of filing a civil suit, you make a complaint to an administrative board, and they hear your case.
  • by tree_frog (113005) on Monday October 07, 2002 @09:56AM (#4402314)
    Actually, why do you think that when you travel to Europe all different denominations of banknotes look different from each other (for example the Euro notes).

    The whole point is the banknotes are different colours and sizes, and have differentiating features (such as intaglio printing) placed in different places on the note precisely so that someone with impaired sight can easily tell the fifferent denominations apart (see here [www.dnb.nl] for details on the features of Euro banknotes for the partially sighted.

    How do those with poor sight differentiate between the different banknote denomintaions in the USA?

    regards, treefrog

  • Re:Legal wrangling (Score:3, Informative)

    by Isofarro (193427) on Monday October 07, 2002 @09:59AM (#4402337) Homepage
    If you comply with W3C standards, you're going to be ADA compliant (AFAIK, IANAL). Most pages are already compliant because they (more or less) follow the standards.


    No, following W3 standards does not guarantee ADA compliance. It is still very possible to use valid HTML and having an end result of tag-soup. Yeah, alt attributes are mandatory as part of the html spec - that's an accessibility plus, but things like table summaries, cell identifiers and headers, skip to content links are not part of the mandatory HTML recommendation.

    On the whole, you have a _much_ better chance of meeting ADA compliance with a standards compatible website. W3 compliance is only a milestone along the journey of accessible websites.
  • by Isofarro (193427) on Monday October 07, 2002 @10:03AM (#4402363) Homepage
    HTML Validators only check that your HTML validates according to the HTML Recommendation. It does not test accessibility requirements that are not part of the HTML recommendation.

    There are tools for testing the accessibility of a website. One of the best I've come across is Accessibility Valet [htmlhelp.com] - a much better tool than Bobby [cast.org]
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday October 07, 2002 @12:33PM (#4403589)
    If you have a disability, why is it the world's job to cater to YOU, instead of YOUR job to adapt to the world? The person *has* already done their part and used a screen reader.

    If someone is blind AND deaf, will they insist that every movie theater provide someone to do that Helen Keller style ... [snip]

    According to ADA Title III [usdoj.gov], Commercial facilities are subject to provide "reasonable accomodations" to their primary place of business. According to the Southwest website [iflyswa.com], Southwest reported that approximately 46 percent, or over $500 million, of its passenger revenue for first quarter 2002 was generated by online bookings via southwest.com. Therefore, the WWW MAY COUNT AS THEIR PRIMARY SOURCE OF REVENUE, AND BECOME SUBJECT TO ADA Title III.

    And this isn't flamebait

    By even having to resort to that statement, it already is

    The ADA always annoyed me

    We'll see how much it annoys you if you or your children ever have the misfortune of becoming blind, deaf, physically disabled.

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