Skies are still unfriendly for the blind

The Wednesday before Thanksgiving is usually the busiest travel day of the year, so most planning to fly home for the holidays are prepared for high fares, long lines, and potentially substandard service. Thankfully, passengers have ways to prepare for the complications – compare fares online to get the lowest rate, monitor flight delays using mobile apps, print boarding passes ahead of time, and check bags using the kiosk – but the blind and other disabled passengers are denied access to these services.

And after years of being relegated to a second-class travel experience, the Obama administration has released a rule that will allow this inequality to continue for years to come. No one would tolerate the nightmare of holiday travel for every flying experience. Why should the blind?

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According to the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), we do not have to. The ACAA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in air travel and requires air carriers to accommodate passengers with disabilities. Although the ability to make technology accessible to people with disabilities has existed for many years, most air carrier and travel websites are completely inaccessible to people with disabilities, and so are the kiosks available as an alternative to long lines at the curb and ticket counters.

In 2008, the Obama administration acknowledged this inequality as a violation of the ACAA, and blind Americans have been waiting for five years for a solution. The much-anticipated final rule was released last week, and we are profoundly disappointed. The rule takes only a fraction of the measures that were initially proposed, and establishes a timeline so liberal (read: slack) that the technology will likely be obsolete when carriers are finished making changes.

The Obama administration waited far too long to take action, and then released a meaningless rule.  It would have been better for the administration to do nothing – this weak rule sets a bad precedent that will drive future disability regulations throughout the federal government.  This is a terrible setback for disabled Americans.

Technology offers more than just convenience: it can create opportunities to expand the circle of participation. For example, consider how airlines display departure and arrival information. First, the information was on tablets displayed behind the ticket counter. Later, digital screens provided a streamlined and frequently updated presentation of information on multiple flights across multiple airlines. Now, live information is instantly available online and on your phone. The first two ways of disseminating information are inherently inaccessible to those who cannot read print, but disseminating information electronically over websites or mobile apps allows blind people to have the same instant access to flight data as everyone else.

This opportunity is missed when airlines refuse to make their websites and apps accessible to users with disabilities, despite readily available solutions. Guidelines to make websites accessible have been available since the 1990s, and the most up-to-date set of criteria, known as “WCAG 2.0 AA,” has been around since 2008.  The WCAG 2.0 AA guidelines are flexible prescriptions for web designers to make content accessible, but most airlines have resisted following them. The same organization of experts that created these guidelines released best practices for mobile apps, but those have also been widely ignored. The rule requires airlines to make websites WCAG 2.0 AA compliant, but gives them two years to make only web pages with “core travel services” accessible. The rule allows an extra year for airlines to fix the rest of their sites.  Why offer three years for airlines to incorporate five-year-old solutions? Even more puzzling, the rule excludes apps, mobile websites, and travel agent sites.

The rule also gives airlines an appalling ten years to make only twenty-five percent of kiosks at each location accessible. This means disabled passengers have to wait an entire decade for only a quarter of kiosks to be usable.

Technology changes so fast that by the time the government mandates accessibility, the technology in question has evolved into a new product or been replaced with a new innovation.  When airlines finally update their web pages in three years, most passengers will be using mobile apps. When airlines finally update their self-service machines in ten years, kiosks may be obsolete. Maybe then the federal government will take action on mobile apps, and the cycle of delayed “access” will continue.

Those flying this Thanksgiving will do a lot of waiting; at the security line, at the gate, and on the tarmac. Disabled passengers have spent years waiting for access to the same services as non-disabled passengers, and now the Obama administration is telling us to wait longer. We are tired of waiting. The government must end this discrimination by amending this rule so the timeline makes sense and the access is not partial, spotty, or incomplete, but fully available to all. Until then, the only thing I will be giving thanks for is the option to take a train.

Maurer is president of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB). With 50,000 members, the NFB is the largest and oldest nationwide organization of blind people.