Designed to bring a world of information to the fingertips of everyone with a computer, the internet has not only brought a slew of privacy issues to the forefront of legislating, but accessibility issues as well. Fully-abled users often have a hard enough time safely navigating the tangled World Wide Web and those with impediments that make using a computer challenging face even more obstacles. The COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly difficult in this regard for persons with sight disabilities and recent events has brought this complex issue to the forefront.
In April of 2021, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that websites are not considered to be places of public accommodation as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ruling stemmed from a suit brought against a grocery store that had not updated its website to be friendly and accessible to blind individuals attempting to refill prescriptions or make use of digital coupons online. The Court held that since the grocery chain itself had ‘physical’ places of business that blind persons could freely access, not updating their website with extra accessibilities does not violate the ADA (1). Interestingly, the Third and Sixth Circuit courts have also handed down the same ruling in similar suits, while the First and Seventh Circuits have held that websites *can* be termed as ‘places of accommodation’ under the ADA. This split between courts will undoubtedly remain a contentious issue unless settled by higher courts in the future.
Additionally, even as blind people struggle with online obstacles that non-disabled people do not, some services and programs meant to help them are in danger of doing more harm than good. Blind people and their advocates are currently in a heated debate with one particular service, AccessiBe, and its business model. AccessiBe is a browser modifying program meant to automatically adjust websites to be more compatible with screen readers that blind people use to navigate the internet. It is the largest accessibility company on the market today. However, blind persons advocates say that the program actually makes surfing the web more difficult for blind people and claim that the program jumbles words and phrases out of order and misreads text to the point of incoherence. Blind advocates recently released an open letter calling for websites to stop using AccessiBe and one even published a popular guide that shows blind people how to block AccessiBe from accessing and modifying websites.
This public furor against AccessiBe has not gone unnoticed by the program’s management team, but its response has been less than understanding and done little to allay the negative feedback. AccessiBe’s CEO is on record as calling the slew of unhappy customer responses to the program as ‘hostile’ and claimed that unnamed ‘thought leaders’ behind the scenes are rallying blind people together in a campaign to damage the company.
This defensive and unhelpful feedback towards the community its company is meant to benefit has created a difficult rift between customer and servicer that may not be repairable. Staying safe during the pandemic while also having the necessary supplies and tools needed to live everyday life is obviously crucial for people with disabilities. Unfortunately, this group is now dealing with setbacks not only in the courts, but in the public sector from products ostensibly meant to support them.
Only time will tell if blind persons are legally protected to enjoy the internet as fully as those without disabilities and fully receive appropriate and empathetic communication and support from those working to help them reach that point. Companies should continue to monitor the legal proceedings around this issue and fully evaluate any third-party providers for ADA compliance before putting any programs into action.
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