The Court of Public Opinion is Not the Last Resort

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As a blind computer user, what did you do the last time you visited a site that was not accessible? Did you switch screen readers or web browsers and hope for the best? Did you get frustrated, send out an angry tweet and forget about it, or did you maybe send an e-mail to the company asking them to make the site more inclusive to all visitors?

Last week the Wall Street Journal published an article about deaf and blind consumers taking web service providers to court. Target and Netflix tried to say the ADA did not apply to web space, but they wound up settling after judges rejected their arguments. Now there are rumors that the Justice department is considering modifications to the ADA to encompass websites.

You can watch my interview response with the Wall Street Journal here.

I want to expand on a few points:

Social media has shattered the barrier that previously existed between consumers and big corporations. Remember the u-turn Netflix took after they announced the change in their subscription service? What about the step backward Verizon took after the backlash to the service fee they attempted to introduce? Google may or may not retain its RSS reader product, but you can rest assured that the petition of over
100,000 signatures on was only the tip of the social media avalanche. What's the common thread here? None of these issues will see the inside of a traditional courtroom.

iOS and Android are two examples of community engagement. Apple may have needed some initial encouragement to get its act together, but the volume of customer feedback has kept accessibility firmly baked into the core product. Can you imagine our collective response if the next iPhone were released without Voiceover? Google has likewise made significant improvements in accessibility since the days of Cupcake, but it would be misleading to assume Google made advances of its own volition. It took hundreds, maybe thousands, of appeals via listservs and social media to tell the company that it could do better to serve the blind community than the poor attempts it was getting comfortable releasing.

Sometimes the community does not even have to lift a thumb. Consider my earlier post on Disney where I spoke of a handheld that gave me equal access to the Orlando theme park. No one had to take them to court. They saw a need, understood the potential market and jumped into accessibility with both feet.

We no longer live in a world where our advocacy priorities need to be laid out by one or two consumer groups. The power to execute change is as nearby as our computer keyboard. If we wait for a consumer group to take an interest in a specific case, we are beholden to that organization to agree that a specific site is enough of a priority, to pass a resolution to take action on that priority, and to wait to see if the case will prevail in the court system. That is not progress.
That is ongoing dependency. Don't get me wrong, there is certainly a place and time for the strength of a consumer group, but in a world where an individual's voice can carry across the world, it is no longer valid for an organization to claim to be the voice of any community, let alone one as richly diverse as the blind community.

I know these are radical ideas. Yet, they beat the crap out of any group calling itself the voice of the blind and walking away from a suit like the target one with $3 million and keeping the lion's share of it for "furthering of the blind." Can you remember the last time we were consulted about our opinions for anyone to claim they represent our views?

Companies wonder if the blindness community is enough of a market to matter. Our numbers range in the millions across the country, and the current number is only likely to increase as the population tilts with the weight of retiring baby boomers. We haven't even started accounting for the number of potential blind customers across the globe. We all have friends, families and supporters who can multiply our efforts.

If we come across a website that does not work with our assistive technology, we need to be proactive and reach out to the company.
Companies do not make their interface difficult to navigate on purpose. We have to assume they have never guessed a blind person would be visiting their website, and you would be surprised at how willing business owners are to make their content more accessible to all visitors.

Of course web accessibility will not always prove so simple. Sometimes the company will fear that accessibility will require a site overhaul.
Sometimes an overhaul may very well be required, but in such cases it is up to us as potential customers to stress the importance of baking accessibility directly into the company's product. It is far less expensive to do it at the outset than to try to implement it later, but if you really want to be able to tap into a website's resources, and if the company is not receptive to your requests, you need to take to the virtual streets and voice your concerns about the company's disregard for equality.

Here is a list of action steps you can consider taking if a site is not accessible:

  • Communicate with the company via the Contact link found on most websites. Explain who you are, what you're trying to achieve on the website, and explain why the specific page is not accessible. Point to accessibility standards to help them understand what should be done to fix the issue.
  • Believe it or not, the telephone still provides the most instant form of communication. Use it to get the names and contact information for the relevant staff that can help address your accessibility concerns.
  • Take advantage of any user forums the company may host to voice your concerns.
  • Keep good documentation of your correspondence with the company concerning the accessibility issue.
  • If direct communication with the company does not yield a satisfactory response, post to your social networks and ask your friends and family to send the company feedback. This is not a negative campaign but simply a way to show the company that there is a larger interest out there in things getting fixed.
  • Write to us here at Serotek, and we'll see what we can do to help you get the company's attention via our growing networks.
  • If all else fails, it's time to call up the troops and discuss a lawsuit. This is a point where consumer groups could be instrumental if they are willing to put the needs of the larger community before their own.

Now, you may be asking yourself: What if the situation does not directly affect me? The consumer voice is only as good as our collective efforts. We fight for equal access to a virtual store so that all shoppers can have a pleasant experience. The store of today could be the social network of tomorrow or the job search site the day after. At some point we may all be affected by someone else's accessibility issues.

All of this is not to say that there is never a place for litigation.
Sometimes a strategic lawsuit is the only means to catch a company's attention. For example, I think the community has done everything it can to convince Amazon that its line of Kindle products need to be accessible. Too many of these tablets are finding their way into the classroom for us to ignore the persistent problem. Let's talk about a class action lawsuit to send a clear message that the blind community cannot be ignored.

Business is an interaction between humans, and these days humans are prone to using tools on the web to motivate the change we could have only dreamed of in the days before the Internet. So, just what are you going to do the next time you encounter a site that does not welcome blind guests?


Great article, Mike!

Isn't leadership here still important? I imagine a well-connected community leader could crowd source hundreds of emails to a company about its inaccessible website. Are you aware of anybody doing this?

by the way, your link to the video has a BR element in the middle of the URL. Use this URL instead:

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