Monday, November 1, 2010

The Right to Accessibility: Air Travel

Amy Standen’s National Public Radio report--“Unfriendly Skies? Blind Passengers Sue United”—is simultaneously encouraging and troubling. According to the story, passengers brought suit against United Airlines, alleging violations of U.S. civil rights laws for its failure to make digital airline ticket kiosks and websites accessible to the blind.
The news was encouraging because it reflects an increasingly organized, politically active, and legally-savvy disability rights community. Similar litigation had been initiated against universities that required students to use inaccessible electronic readers.
My disappointment stems from the realization that two decades after passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and following subsequent amentments, such groups would still have to litigate to effectuate basic change. IntLawGrrls have discussed the challenges and possibilities of the disability rights movement in our disability series.
The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which the U.S. President signed in 2009 and about which I’ve posted here, here, and here, provides the following in Article 9:

1. To enable persons with disabilities to live independently and participate fully in all aspects of life, States Parties shall take appropriate measures to ensure to persons with disabilities access, on an equal basis with others, to the physical environment, to transportation, to information and communications,
including information and communications technologies and systems, and to other facilities and services open or provided to the public, both in urban and in rural areas. These measures, which shall include the identification and elimination of obstacles and barriers to accessibility, shall apply to, inter alia:
(a) Buildings, roads, transportation and other indoor and outdoor
facilities, including schools, housing, medical facilities and workplaces;
(b) Information, communications and other services, including electronic services and emergency services.
2. States Parties shall also take appropriate measures to:
(a) Develop, promulgate and monitor the implementation of minimum standards and guidelines for the accessibility of
facilities and services open or provided to the public;
(b) Ensure that private entities that offer facilities and services which are open or provided to the public take into account all aspects of accessibility for persons with disabilities;
(c) Provide training for stakeholders on accessibility issues
facing persons with disabilities;
(d) Provide in buildings and other facilities open to the public signage in Braille and in easy to read and understand forms;
(e) Provide forms of live assistance and intermediaries, including guides, readers and professional sign language interpreters, to
facilitate accessibility to buildings and other facilities open to the public;
(f) Promote other appropriate forms of assistance and support to persons with disabilities to ensure their access to information;
(g) Promote access for persons with disabilities to new information and communications technologies and systems, including the Internet;
(h) Promote the design, development, production and distribution of accessible information and communications technologies and systems at an early stage, so that these technologies and systems become accessible at minimum cost.
Making digital kiosks accessible seems a relatively simple matter given the advanced state and easy availability of speech software. It is an advance, by the way, that many sighted physicians, lawyers, and other busy professionals now find invaluable. They may use voice recognition software to take notes, and then use speech software to have long medical and legal records read back to them while their hands or eyes are occupied.
Technological developments, once created by or for blind users, are now being marketed quite profitably to non-disabled consumers. When I became legally-blind in the mid-1990s, I discovered, to my great relief and delight, audiobooks in the form of books on tape through the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically-Handicapped. Many such collections are now being transferred to digital format (if funding is not cut). These days, of course, commercial audiobooks are a “mainstream” necessity for non-disabled travelers on long car or airplane trips. Even some smartphones that have flat, non-tactile touchscreens are finally accessible for the blind with integrated speech software. The technology had long been available at high cost in specialized disability contexts, but it seems that few companies were willing to investigate its mainstream marketability. Such applications now allow both blind and sighted listeners to read smartphone menus, e-mails, the web, and other applications on a small hand-held device.
Millions now carry around electronic-readers and e-books. Electronic textbooks are increasingly touted as a partial solution for the skyrocketing costs of bound textbooks. But these innovations must be made with the principles of universal design and access in mind. The advent of text-to-speech and large-print in electronic readers also resulted in lawsuits and official warnings when designers and universities apparently forgot to consider or consult with disabled potential users. Certain electronic reader developers overlooked the simple matter of formatting the basic menus in audio or large-print to allow blind users to reach the desired reading materials in the first place.
Ironically, many blind people who are lucky enough to have the financial support to access technology and the related training use it avidly and expertly. What was once feared as a massive potential barrier to employment or participation has instead opened many doors and opportunities to important resources and information.
Screen-reading software allows blind users to read on-line news media, to conduct research, to blog, and to participate in social networks for political, employment, or cultural networking. It should also allow them to travel more easily.
This post is dedicated to the late Paul Steven Miller (1961-2010), Henry M. Jackson Professor of Law, University of Washington School of Law, and to his family, friends, and colleagues. A leading disability rights advocate, Paul was Special Assistant to U.S. President Obama, liaison on disability for former President Clinton, and one of the longest serving members of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Paul passed away at age 49 on Tuesday, October 19. Stories about his life and work appear here and here.

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