Peter Blanck and Lex Frieden discuss the ADA and web accessibility on Knowledge@Wharton podcast.

July 16, 2019

BBI Chairman Peter Blanck, was interviewed on July 3 on Knowledge@Wharton. Joining Dr. Blanck is Lex Frieden, Professor of Biomedical Informatics and Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. During this podcast Drs. Blanck and Frieden discuss companies being sued for their websites not being ADA-compliant. 

Knowledge@Wharton is a daily, call-in business interview program, broadcasting live from The Wharton School's historic Ivy League campus. Host Dan Loney goes behind the headlines with world-renowned Wharton professors, distinguished alumni and expert guests. Listen to Knowledge@Wharton Monday through Friday, 10a-12p, EST on SiriusXM channel 132.

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Transcript of Session

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HOST: Knowledge @ Wharton here on Sirius XM 132 business radio powered by the Wharton School. Our final 30 of the day. Then will you back with you on Friday with another edition of our show. Just a reminder that tomorrow is the Sirius X. business radio cookout for the 4th of July. Lots of segments all day long about food. So as you're getting up, getting ready to maybe get that steak or that burger or hotdogs or the potato salad the mac salad or whatever it might be to get ready for your party, your cookout, whatever might be, tune into Sirius XM 132 for our 4th of July cookout special all day long. Segments on this show about a variety of different things you can eat. Even one about eating bugs. That will be part of our 4th of July special here on Sirius XM 132. Also, a reminder make sure that you go to the knowledge award website which has a variety of stories making news around the globe, knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu. When you get there make sure that you sign up for the newsletters which come at you every Wednesday and Friday. So the latest edition of the newsletter already in your inbox today. If you haven't signed up for it sign up for today and you'll get one on Friday knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu.
HOST: A group of 50 colleges and universities are being sued by a blind man who alleges their websites violate the Americans With Disabilities Act. The suit says that these websites from colleges across the U.S. does not provide, or should say, the suit says these websites do not provide the necessary access,  even for those with a screen reader. This is just the latest in hundreds of lawsuits against various companies for websites deemed non-compliant with ADA rules. Even Beyoncé was sued in January by a blind woman because her personal website was quote purely visual end quote. With more on these cases we are joined by Lex Frieden professor of biomedical informatics and physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. Also with us, Peter Blanck who is a professor at Syracuse University's College of Law and chairman of the Burton Blatt Institute which aims to advance the participation of people with disabilities in society. He's also author of the book Equality the Struggle for Web Accessibility by Persons with Cognitive Disabilities. Lex, Peter thanks for your time today.
LEX: Thanks for having us
PETER: Good morning
HOST: Good morning great to have both of you with us.  Lex, it feels like we're continuing to find pockets where the compliance issues with the ADA. it seems like it is either been forgotten about or has just been lost in the process.
LEX: Well clearly this is a pocket and it's partly due to the rapid advancement of technical improvements in web use. Everybody now has a website and we're moving now rapidly toward more social media and it's frankly, I think, it's hard for some of the programmers to keep up with it. And there are there are relatively good programmers and then there are people who just use a cut and paste web site and it's not accessible to many of us so. In a way it is kind of niche. This problem with the web development is a function of the growing use of technology.
HOST: Peter your thoughts
PETER: Well I think I hate to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We don't talk about the 10s of hundreds of thousands of proactive businesses and users who do create quite cost effective accessible websites for individuals who are blind, deaf, and have dexterity issues. And in any circumstance there is going to be actors that you know approach this from a more litigious point of view, which is understandable in certain circumstances.
HOST: But it makes you wonder Peter whether or not it is actually a conscious business decision or whether or not it is it is something that gets lost in the translation with some of these companies. And in this case, with these schools, where they're not falling through and the schools, Peter, I think it is even more surprising because obviously these schools have had to do a variety of different things with their institutions themselves their buildings etc. to make sure that they are ADA compliant.
PETER: Well look, I mean it in this day and age any university or school is competing for the best students and for the for the dollars of those students and the funders of the donors. The same is true for business and it always is beside me why these institutions, whether public or private, would want to exclude tens of thousands of potential consumers whose dollars are as green as anybody else's, as my friends always say, from this marketplace. Particularly given that the studies show that the benefits of accessibility far outweigh the costs.
HOST: Lex
LEX: I'm not certain that it's always a matter of will either you know. These institutions, both universities and companies alike, hire people to put together websites for them and to do other work. And if they hire people who don't understand the law and they don't follow the law then you're going to wind up with issues. In my own institution we have people that we train to do  web sites. And we are fully committed to 100 percent universal accessibility. But in reality we have to hire contractors to do work. And I can't tell you the number of times that we've found these people who are not complying with the ADA and who are not capable of doing some of the work we expect them to do. That's just a function of the way business gets done. And I think because of that we have to hold contractors and businesses, the universities, all a likely accountable. If I'm a university and I have a contractor do a job for me, ultimately, I think I'm accountable and it's up to my it's in my best interest to make sure the job is done right. That's a point I want to make. This is not rocket science. There's an organization called the World Wide Web Consortium W3C. And that particular group has established a defacto standard for web accessibility. It's easy enough to do a kind of broad brush test with the validators that they have online to see if the web site accessible or not. And it's also not illogical to think that if you have a graphic oriented display on your web that may not be accessible to people with vision impairments, and therefore you need to have an alternative way that they can tell what it is you're trying to portray in a graphical format.
HOST: What do you think Peter? Especially potentially with the case of Beyoncé and obviously there are so many companies it is it does fall on the people that are building the website to make sure that they are following all the compliance issues that need to occur.
PETER: Yeah you know, well I mean this is part of the business world we operate in today. What CEO of a major company would want to exclude you know a huge proportion of the potential clients from their business opportunities? It's just like any other marketing issue. What if Beyoncé decided she did not want a version of her website in Spanish and excluded Hispanic or Latino community. I mean that's a business decision. I guess I don't know why she would want to make that decision. The problem is that often people with disabilities are not seen as an effective market. And I think we will see in 10 years that shakeout and particularly with our aging society those companies that address this market will survive and others will not.
HOST: Is it surprising to you Lex, and I asked this of Peter seconds ago here, but is it surprising to you that universities would be involved in some of these issues especially with the website.
LEX: No, it's not surprising. I mean the universities are like big corporations. There's a lot of people involved in the process of putting out a product. And in this case it's a product for the public that probably could stand more oversight, more reviews than they give it before they put it out to the public. But there's no question that in virtually all of the universities that we're speaking about there are people who work for that university who know very well how to make an accessible website and probably have done so. And the problem is that those people, faculty very often, and students for that matter, may not have been involved in the vetting process for the product that they put online. That happens all the time. Just because they're trying to move so quickly to get information out.
HOST: 844WHARTON  is the number if you would like to join in 8449427866 or if you'd like to send us a comment on Twitter @BizRadio132 our my Twitter account which is @ DMLoney21. Should we have the expectation, Lex, that that these instances should not be occurring especially here in 2019?
LEX:  Well no they should not be occurring, and you know in one respect I think the lawsuits are useful in that they raise, bring attention to the question. What's wrong is when people try to be defensive about that and try to come up with excuses or alternatives that are not sufficient to meeting the needs of people with disabilities. So, you know I  think you're you make a very good point. You know whether we are nearly 30 years after the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act, we should not really see these kinds of violations of the ADA. But the fact is,  here in Houston, in my city, I see every week somebody building a new addition to their building, the architect is not aware of the ADA or wasn't trained well or for some reason has ignored it and the code checkers find them ultimately. If they don't find them some person with a disability is going to report that. I recently did that, and the U.S. attorney's office took it up with them. A week later, the facility that had built the inaccessible addition had it made accessible. It wasn't that hard, it didn't cost them that much money, they just missed it and then when it was brought to their attention, frankly by me, they weren't too eager to go ahead and fix it up. But when they got a call from the U.S. attorney's office they changed their mind real quickly.
HOST: But these issues surrounding, Lex, the websites of the colleges and  the Internet in general becomes I think one of the most important areas in, and correct me if I'm wrong, surrounding compliance with the ADA because of how reliant we are on the Internet, our smartphones, our computers, our tablets, you name it.
LEX: That's the best point. We are all becoming interdependent on the web and if some of us are not able to use the web then we are therefore disadvantaged by it. And the whole point of the Americans With Disabilities Act is that people with disabilities, regardless of their impairments, should have the opportunity to do everything that people without disabilities do. That our environment, that we build, that we create, should not be made inaccessible. That there are ways to ensure that we have equality for all and that's what we're aiming for. You know it's hard to justify and really hard to defend anyone who today would create a product like a website that wasn’t accessible.
HOST: Peter, your thoughts.
PETER: Well, I mean as we move towards autonomous systems, and smart homes, and artificial intelligence, we will move towards a more universally designed approach to technology. We have to. We will have an aging society. We will have a society that is all for telemedicine,  teleducation, a virtual reality. And the question's going to be leadership. What segment of the population do you want to exclude from that future, this gig economy we're in? And increasingly, I will I think, we will gravitate as a society towards these more universally designed approaches which will enhance issues in language, culture as well as disability.
HOST: So, you expect to see some form as well, let me rephrase it this way. How do you expect that we will move forward to not having these issues moving forward with the Internet being a core component Peter.
PETER: Well as I say, and Lex says  this as well, this concept of universal design will increasingly enable us. I'm working on projects now where you could pick up any device, anywhere, anytime, and it automatically configures to your preferences. Fror what it looks like, how it speaks to you, what size text it is, whether it uses speech technology, and so forth. And within a short period of time, we will have this sort of auto-personalization, which hopefully will make these sorts of issues moot because people will have a preference in the way they approach information. But you know by all means content is the king today. It's not the format of the delivery. And content has the value and people want to get that content in many ways. Whether it's banks or Target or Amazon or whatever, Wal-Mart, to those people who want to purchase that content.
HOST: Lex, your thoughts.
LEX: Well I agree with Peter to a large degree. But regardless of how much progress we make toward universal design. regardless of how the demographics change, and it's apparent that more people will have disabilities as a result of aging in the future. We will still need a role, for there will be a role for compliance.  And I think,  you know we started this conversation about an individual who was visually impaired that sued a number of universities and one fell swoop,  I don't agree with that. I think if the person wanted to go to school there and couldn't, then it's perfectly reasonable for them to assert that right. To do so at the places that they have a visited, I think is a little the extreme. Although an organization like the National Federation of the Blind that represents thousands of blind people certainly has the right and maybe even the obligation under their charter to seek these kinds of remedies and that might be a broader brush in terms of the universities that don't have accessible websites.
HOST: But would go ahead, I'm sorry finish up.
LEX: I was just going to say that compliance, compliance really is important here, and we shouldn't overlook that.
HOST: I would think Lex, with your background, and your work that you've done on the ADA, it has to be a disappointing view, on a variety of fronts, that we're still having a lot of these conversations today.
LEX: Tt's so frustrating, and particularly when it comes to this technology that it's so easy to fix, and so logical. I mean we're talking about the kinds of issues we're talking about here are our websites that post PDF. And I think if all your listeners know what a PDF is. For many people using screen readers those PDFs are not accessible. They're like graphics to the screen reader, and so they therefore need to be reprinted. Not necessarily showing to the people who are looking at the website, but on the secondary page where screen readers can tell what it said in the PDF. The same thing is true of graphics.
We, in my school, we teach students how to produce charts, figures, tables, and so on. But they also must have a legend for them, and they must have an interpretation that a person who cannot see that particular graph can understand that the lines are moving one way or another in relation to themselves. So, it's perfectly logical what people need in order to be able to use the web. And it's so frustrating that we find these sites jumping up that are just pop-up graphics and you know by building a graphical site without an underlying alternate. Nothing wrong with the graphics. I like to look at the pictures too. Blind people can't see the pictures. So they should know what's on the graphics. And the worst case of all is when somebody has a website that you fill out a form you get down to the bottom and you press go or enter and that little button happens to be in a graphical format, with the pretty little green on it and they cannot see what it says.
HOST: Peter your thoughts.
PETER: As a lawyer, we may be talking compliance very soon. We all like to eat pizza. Some of us like to eat Domino's Pizza. The 9th Circuit, which is in California United States Court of Appeals, decided that websites, their Dominos app, was covered by the Americans With Disabilities Act. And now they're petitioning, Domino's is petitioning that ruling to the United States Supreme Court. That happened in January of 2019. So we may see in the next term some guidance about compliance with regard to the extent to which websites are covered by these disability laws.
HOST: But how disappointing is it for you Peter, similar to what I asked Lex, that we're still having these conversations 30 years after the fact.
PETER: Well again I try to view this as a tip of the iceberg. I think there are many good organizations that have adopted accessible approaches. We study those.  I've written about those. Certainly, there are outliers. At the end of the day, like anything else, whether it's in the area of race or gender or ethnicity, it's about leadership. It's about organizational leadership and commitment. Whether you're a chancellor of a university or a president of the company. And if this is an important issue to you both socially and financially then it gets done. That's really the simple truth.
HOST: Lex, when you're talking about the university environment, the opportunity, or the lack of opportunity, for potential students when a college website is not compliant, that's a significant loss not only to the individual but to the university as well.
LEX: It's a significant loss to all of us frankly. I mean here’s, imagine a person that can't use the university facilities. They're not going to get an education. If they don't get an education, then they're not going to get a job. And if they don't have a job, then they're going to be benefiting from the social income. That is not any of our objectives and certainly not that student’s objective. We need to make an education available to all, accessible to all. It’s an ongoing challenge for many of these universities to meet the individual requirements of people with disabilities, some of whom have disabilities that are very complex and involve a lot of accommodation. None the less, it is, and it's not only the ADA that establishes the right of students in schools, it is clearly a student’s right to have an education and disabilities should not prevent them from doing so. So, I'm very empathetic.  I was turned down for admission to a university and I'm very empathetic to students who find that they cannot get an education because the barriers in the educational environment including those on the web.
HOST: Gentlemen thanks very much for your time today. I have to end it there. We’re at the almost at the end of the show. Thank you, Lex. Thank you, Peter. All the best to you both.
PETER:  Thank you very much.
LEX:  Have a great day.
HOST: Thank you. Lex Frieden from the University of Texas Health Science Center. Peter Blanck at Syracuse University, their College of Law. That will take care of the show for the day. We will be back with you on Friday with another edition of our show. Kind of laying out what we've got for you on Sirius XM 132.  Just a reminder the business radio cookout special is tomorrow all day long with a variety of segments for all the different shows across the channel that will be talking about different issues about cooking, about food etc. There's even going to be one about eating bugs. so stay tuned for all of that throughout the course of your July 4th holiday. So, as you're getting prepared for that picnic tune us in there.  And then as you mentioned we’ll interact with you on Friday with another edition of our show. You'll be hearing from Jill Sleshinger who you may know from her work with CBS News, she's their business analyst. She has authored a book The Dumb Things Smart People Do With Money. She'll be joining us as part of the show on Friday. And then also we're going to talk about entrepreneurship in the world of education and how it is growing and how it is having a significant impact, a growing impact, every month here in America and how some of that is changing right here at the University of Pennsylvania. That will be Friday's knowledge award 10 am Eastern Time here on Sirius XM 132. Everybody enjoy your July.4th holiday hope it is a great one. Many thanks to Patti McMann, Monique Nazareth, Danielle Bruno for putting the show together. enjoy the rest of your day. Enjoy your 4th and we will see you on Friday.