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How to Pull the Plug on the Internet

The following post was written two days before the Supreme Court denied certiorari (refused to hear) the case discussed below. Nonetheless, since the issues aren’t likely to disappear any time in the immediate future, it seems worth posting anyway.

Imagine tomorrow morning that about half of the websites you try to go to have disappeared. If you need to access business sites as part of your work, the figure might be as high as 80% or 90%. A significant percentage of apps on your mobile device are either suddenly more clunky to use or may have completely vanished. The social media sites you go to may still be available, but, if they are, they’re going to be far harder and much more time-consuming to use.

The preceding paragraph is not something drawn from science fiction. The percentages are rough estimates, the reality might be a bit higher or lower, but the situation described is very real.

The Supreme Court has been asked to hear a case this term in which Domino’s, the pizza people, are contending that the Americans with Disabilities Act should not apply to the internet. Their argument, greatly simplified, is that the ADA was intended to only apply to physical entities, such as a brick and mortar business, and not the internet and there should be nothing requiring the online world to be equally accessible to everyone.

Because the internet is primarily a visual medium, the case essentially focuses on the ability of blind and visually-impaired people to have something like the same opportunity as everyone else to take advantage of the online world, despite Domino’s claiming they don’t want to discriminate against anyone.

I’m certainly not a constitutional scholar and the issues before the Court, at least as I’ve been able to understand them, seem to be highly abstract, more akin to how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, but it’s hard to overstate what’s at stake for people who are blind and visually-impaired.

The case came about when a blind customer was unable to order a pizza from either the Domino’s website or mobile app, something the company doesn’t deny.

“So what?” you may say. “Just use the phone.” That might work for a pizza but not for a great many other financial transactions. For example, my wife and I are planning a plane trip to a wedding in November, and it is impossible to order the tickets online. If that weren’t enough, if we order by phone, we will be assessed a steep charge for not using the airline’s website, and this is far from atypical.

Last week, I finally decided that I needed to replace my favorite pair of jeans. My size was not available in the local terrestrial store, but I was told I could order online. This was great in theory, but, in practice, the company’s website was inaccessible. My only option was to ask a friend to do the ordering. This worked, but I thought I was a big boy and could do things like this for myself. As businesses are increasingly trying to drive traffic to their websites, examples like these are becoming far more common.

What makes a site inaccessible? Without telling you more than you want or need to know about this, sometimes important features of a web page aren’t labeled; you just hear “clickable,” “clickable,” without a clue as to what selecting the option will do. Not infrequently, a company’s website has important features such as prices, model numbers, or where you should enter your credit card information poorly or confusingly labeled. While there are some sites that can be accessed by the blind visitor, it’s far more likely that you can’t be 100% certain that you’re really ordering that stylish jacket you wanted and not the risqué women’s underwear. (Imagine trying to explain that one to your wife.)

A decision in favor of Domino’s will have an even greater impact on the prospects for employment for people who are blind. Like the rest of the population, employment, and especially the best jobs – the law, education, government service, and technology – depend on the ability to access the internet. To be blunt, a very large percentage of jobs that are current options for the blind and visually-impaired population are likely to disappear if Domino’s wins its case. If this seems like an overstatement, take a minute to make a list of half-way decent jobs that can be performed with little vision and no access to the online world.

What makes all of this especially unfortunate is that making websites truly accessible for everyone is relatively easy and cheap. This is far from a burden for businesses. The additional cost is not just small; it’s negligible. Knowing how to properly code a site so that it really is accessible can be quickly and easily learned by a professional of even moderate skill, and the benefits are immense.

A quick example will illustrate. The website of the company which handles my wife’s retirement program is quasi-accessible. That is, some portions of the site we try to access are really well done, and there’s no question that what we are reading is accurate. Then, there are other parts of the site that are a mystery world in which the blind visitor has no clue what is going on. Finally, there’s a significant portion of the site that is somewhere in between; it’s a twilight world that we can never be sure is being read correctly by our software – maybe yes, maybe no. It would be nice to have an up-to-date rendering of what is in her account but getting that is extremely difficult. Trying to do it by phone is only slightly easier than trying to sneak a firearm on an airplane.

In contrast, my account, which is with Charles Schwab, is wonderfully accessible. This is a large, complicated website, but I’ve yet to run across any portion of it that isn’t accessible. In addition, the accessibility is created without the sighted visitor losing any of the visual features they expect. The coding of the site that makes this possible goes on behind the scene without the sighted customer even being aware that it exists. Everyone benefits without it having to be a big deal.

Political scientists can usually predict how members of Congress will vote on particular pieces of legislation with considerable accuracy. The vote on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was, however, a notable exception. Knowing whether someone was a Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative was not very helpful in determining how they would vote. However, what was a very good predictor was whether a member of Congress knew someone who was close to them who had a significant disability. I can only hope that a majority of the Court has friends or family who are disabled and will, therefore, understand what’s at stake in the Domino’s case.

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