United’s Travel Technology Excludes the Blind, Lawsuit Alleges

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For most people, touch-screen check-in kiosks at airports have transformed  air travel  for the better. Wait times and never-ending lines are often eliminated — at least until we reach security.  But for the visually impaired, electronic check-in is just another hurdle in an already demeaning and potentially unsafe experience, according to a lawsuit.

The National Federation for the Blind is suing United Airlines for making  check-in machines inaccessible to sight-impaired by failing to include audio software, which they say is in violation of the California Disability Act. “The airline industry has an unfortunate history of discriminating against blind passengers, and now United Airlines is repeating that history by deploying inaccessible technology that we cannot use,” said Dr. Marc Maurer, President of the National Federation, in a statement announcing the suit.  He added that other airlines have audio technology available at their kiosks, proving that the equipment is available and effective. (More on Time.com: Do Parents Discriminate Against Their Own Chubby Children?).

Audio assists for the blind are an increasingly common feature of an increasingly wired world. ATMs have them, so do some websites and so do iPads and some computers. But airlines have been slow to catch on. A professor of computer science at Towson University near Baltimore reported that four of the ten most popular airlines do not have audio assistance on the web, according to National Public Radio (NPR).

The suit argues that a check-in kiosk is materially different from a person at the counter because the kiosk allows customers to choose their own seats and gives them first access to upgrade opportunities.  Similarly, the websites of airlines often offer “web only” fares that are not available to customers who call in. (More on Time.com: Six Tips for Traveling with an Autistic Child).

But beyond limited access, one of the plaintiffs, Mike May explained to NPR why limitations at the kiosks could be so frustrating.

“There’s no earphone jack, no audio output, no Braille output. It’s demeaning to have to ask [someone for help], it’s inconvenient, and it has an element of not being safe to have to depend on another person for that.

In a prepared statement, the company said: “United Airlines is committed to providing quality service to all of our customers and to remaining in full compliance with the Air Carrier Access Act. We do not tolerate discrimination of any kind.”

The Air Carrier Access Act is a federal guideline in the treatment of customers with disabilities.

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