Unfriendly Skies? Blind Passengers Sue United A group of blind air travelers has sued United Airlines, claiming that the airline's digital kiosks are inaccessible. And the kiosks are just an example of a bigger problem: electronic devices that the blind cannot use.

Unfriendly Skies? Blind Passengers Sue United

Unfriendly Skies? Blind Passengers Sue United

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A United Airlines check-in counter at O'Hare International Airport M. Spencer Green/AP hide caption

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M. Spencer Green/AP

This week, a group of blind air travelers filed suit against United Airlines claiming that the airline's digital kiosks are inaccessible to blind people.

It's not a problem that most travelers think about: How would they get through an airport without their eyesight? But something as simple as finding out your flight's gate can be a hassle.

Mike May, who lives in Davis, Calif., says he has to ask someone to look for flight information on the big digital boards. And checking in using the now-ubiquitous electronic kiosks is an even bigger hassle, at least at many airlines.

"There's no earphone jack, no audio output, no Braille output," says May, who is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. So he often has to find a stranger with time to help, then hand over his credit card and other private information. "It's demeaning to have to ask, it's inconvenient, and it has an element of not being safe to have to depend on another person for that," he says.

Websites Inaccessible, Too

In fact, the problems start even before they get to the airport, says Jonathan Lazar, who teaches computer science at Towson University in Maryland. Recently, Lazar took a close look at the websites of 10 leading airlines. He found that four of them, including United, are inaccessible to blind people; the sites are incompatible with the screen readers that blind people use to surf the Web.

Those airlines effectively force blind people to buy tickets by phone, "and more than one-third of the time, they ended up overcharging blind people. Either charging higher fares, or refusing to waive the call center fee, or both," Lazar says.

Lazar says there's an easy solution: Design websites that blind people can use. American Airlines and Continental have already done that. So have eBay and Target. He says accessible and inaccessible websites look exactly the same. The difference is the way that the pages are coded, including labels for links and images.

Auditory Guidance

On an inaccessible website, a blind person using a screen reader might hear something like this: "Image ... image ... image" or "one-four-six-four-six-dot-jpg." Lazar calls it "basically garbled junk."

On an accessible site, on the other hand, blind people hear descriptions that make sense to them.

There are similar solutions for touch screens. The iPhone or iPad, for instance, can be used by a blind person after a quick change to the device's settings. Every time your finger touches something, the device tells you what it is. Touch the icon for Facebook, for example, and you hear an automated voice saying "Facebook."

May says those examples show that designing devices with accessibility in mind is perfectly feasible. And while his lawsuit focuses on airline kiosks, they're really just an example of a bigger problem: electronic devices that he and others like him cannot use.

"It would be so much easier to build in accessibility from the ground up, rather than have to retrofit them after the fact," he says. He says that technology can open doors for disabled people, but poorly designed technology can also shut them out.