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Accommodating the Disabled Customer in the Internet AgeSeptember 22, 2009 By: Lori Adelson, Brooke Dolara Home-Based Travel Agent
Website Accessibility in the Travel Industry
The Good News and the Bad News
Congratulations. Your travel agency has launched its new website and business is booming. The website has received rave reviews and the business is beginning to grow. But wait— a blind patron has lodged a complaint to the agency that they cannot use the website, and is discouraged that they still have to make travel plans in person or over the phone. The blind customer recommends that you make the website handicapped accessible.
However, you disregard the complaint as inconsequential, and do not make any of the requested changes. Unfortunately, the blind customer is undaunted and sues the agency for discrimination under Title III of the American With Disabilities Act. Guess what? The Court agrees that the website is inaccessible, and orders your travel agency to make changes to the website, and pay the blind customers’ attorneys’ fees and costs.
In addition, the Court order states that compensatory damages in the amount of $200 a day will be imposed, if your agency fails to comply with the Court order and make the required ADA modifications, within a certain defined time period. What started out as a small and easily avoided problem for the agency has now snowballed into an expensive legal nightmare.
What is Title III of the American With Disabilities Act?
In 1990, Congress enacted Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act to prevent discrimination against disabled individuals by private entities operating public accommodations. Under Title III, all public facilities, including travel agencies, are required to provide both disabled and non-disabled customers with full and equal access to its services. The courts have expanded “access to services” to include access to a company’s websites, reasoning that website offers an extension of services provided by the company at its physical location.
As such, if a travel agency operates a website that is inaccessible to blind customers that travel agency may be held liable under the ADA for discriminating against their disabled customers, just as if the agency prevented the customers from entering their physical place of business. Although plaintiffs cannot recover monetary damages in a Title III action, they can sue and obtain both an injunction and attorneys’ fees against an offending business.
In addition, the Court order may include compensatory damage to accrue on a daily basis in the event the company fails to comply and make the requested modifications. Moreover, such an injunction may force businesses to make Court ordered modifications that are much more costly than the alterations your business may have had to make on its own initiative.
How Can You Protect Your Business and At the Same Time Increase Your Revenue?
Recently, the protections offered under Title III to the disabled have increased, and Internet business has exploded in the years since Title III was implemented. Notably, at least 1.5 million (of the approximately 21.2 million) Americans with vision loss currently use computers and have access to the Internet. As a result, businesses with websites need to take an active interest in making their websites fully accessible to disabled individuals.
Indeed, proactive compliance is the most cost-effective method to shield your business from potential liability arising from the failure to provide both disabled and non-disabled customers with full and equal access to its services. Indeed, by achieving website accessibility for disabled customers, travel agencies can offer services to individuals who would otherwise seek out competing businesses who offer more accommodating services and invites the greatest amount of user traffic and potential revenue opportunities.
Website Accessibility Compliance
There is no exhaustive list of requirements for website accessibility compliance under Title III. However, an accessible website should be accommodating to individuals with a range of disabilities, including visual, motor and cognitive disabilities. An accessible website should work compatibly with assistive technology programs. These assistive technology programs allow disabled users to navigate the website with full and equal access required by law. Many of these features are easy to implement and affordable, depending on the programs used to modify the website.
An accessible website can easily accommodate disabled individuals by offering compatibility with voice dictation and voice recognition software. Voice dictation software records spoken words through a computer microphone and translates them onto the screen, allowing the user to “type” text. Voice recognition software assists individuals with visual impairments by recognizing and implementing the user’s vocal commands, such as commands to “save” or “submit” text. These programs permit users unable to use a keyboard to enter and submit information, and both are popular with individuals suffering from joint impairments such as carpal tunnel syndrome and arthritis, as well as motor and visual impairments. Websites can also accommodate visually impaired users by identifying all graphics appearing on the page. A user can scroll over an image, which can be identified by either magnification or an auditory translation of the graphic.
For an example of an ADA accessible website, visit www.wsh-law.com.
In sum, any travel business should invest in making their website accessible to the disabled community. The cost of making such changes is relatively small in time and expense. The benefits of making such changes are twofold: compliance protects your travel business from liability under Title III and provides the business with opportunities for growth. The programs discussed above are only some of the many assistive technology programs available. Travel agencies should consult with their legal counsel and advisors to discuss a proactive compliance program that will best serve their business needs.