Dickensian Disney: not down with the kids

Last September a class action law suit was brought against Disney by three visually impaired ladies stating that:

Disney’s websites relating to its theme parks, hotels and restaurants are inaccessible to the visually impaired, in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act

This week the plaintiffs filed a certification brief, taking the lawsuit to the next stage. Disney however is not impressed:

Disney denies that it owes any special obligation to blind persons as a group, and asserts that decisions regarding accommodations for its visually impaired patrons must be made one guest at a time and not as a matter of company policy. The complaint also alleges that Disney denies an ability to estimate the number of visually impaired or blind guests who visit its resorts or its websites.

Honestly? Have they really not learnt the lessons they churn out in Disney movies around equality, acceptance and accommodation? I’m sure the Three Blind Mousketeers from the Disney classic of the same name would have something to say about that. This is such a draconian and ignorant stance it’s almost farcical. Except it’s not farcical, it’s real.

Not having accessibility as ‘company policy’ and judging patrons on a ‘case by case’ basis is at best ignoring a significant customer base and associated profit but at its core plain old discrimination: hurtful and upsetting.

Disney claiming that it can’t estimate the numbers of visually impaired visitors to their resorts is mind boggling. What do numbers have to do with it anyway? This is not a quantitative issue; it’s about the right to access information and services regardless of who you are.

If Disney really want to talk about numbers a quick search reveals insights into how many Americans are living with a disability (PDF) (however let’s not forget that Disney is a global brand). Numbers should be considered conservative however as there is a significant part of any population that may not be registered as having a visual impairment but have some kind of sight problem, wear glasses, be colour blind or have deteriorating eyesight.  Factored into this should be all potential users with disabilities as well as the aging population. And yes older people will be using Disney websites too. There’ll be plenty of grandparents buying gifts, tickets and treats online for grandchildren.

But I digress.

According the the press release (linked above) the three plaintiffs claim Disney fails to accomodate screen reader users because:

  • Websites had Flash content that is not accessible to blind users
  • Websites had video and audio that could not be turned off by blind users, and therefore drowned out their screen readers

Both the above points are in direct violation of the Web Content Accessibility Guidlines 2.0 (WCAG) which is generally accepted as the international benchmark for accessible web content and is referenced in law globally:

In addition to this the issues flagged are not just barriers to screen reader users but also to anyone who can’t download Flash (some mobile users for example), keyboard only users in browsers other than Internet Explorer and so on.

So, Disney, here are are a couple of things you may want to think about:

  • Build accessible Flash: The Accessibility Team over at Adobe have worked tirelessly to improve Flash capabilities to talk to screen readers. They have developed WCAG 2.0 Techniques for Flash and are active, interested and responsive in forums, mailing lists, privately and at conferences to anyone asking for help.
  • Switch off auto-play: it’s easy enough to not have video set to auto play and give the user the choice to load video or not. This helps not only blind people but all of us who may be on mobile connections (and don’t want to pay the data costs), in an office and don’t have headphones or struggle to find the off button.
  • Establish a company accessibility policy: Get a policy in place that covers not just accessibility online but also within the built environments of Disney resorts and another media.
  • Employ an accessibility lead for online: Get someone in place who can oversee the creation of an accessibility strategy, statement, audit and review of existing web properties, policy regarding design, build and testing as well as training. An organisation of such size would never consider not having a security or SEO specialist, why not have an accessibility specialist?
  • Accommodate all users with disabilities: Accessibility is not just about blind people it also includes people with learning difficulties, hearing problems and mobility impairments, older users as well as mobile users, people using older hardware/software/browsers and on dial up.
  • Be transparent: Document all work being done towards making Disney sites accessible, publish an accessibility statement online, set up a complaints channel that is responsive and helpful, and engage with disabled users directly.

Maybe I’m naive and think there’ll always be birdies to hang out the laundry and woodland animals to clean the kitchen but I’m, shocked at how ignorant, ill-informed and damaging Disney’s attitude is.

So Disney, rather than exploit disabled characters in your films such as Tiny Tim, the Hunchback of Notra Dame, Hook, Nemo, the 7 dwarfs and and many more) to make money why don’t you actually practice what you preach?

14 thoughts on “Dickensian Disney: not down with the kids

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Dickensian Disney: not down with the kids » iheni :: making the web worldwide -- Topsy.com

  2. What I find particularly mind-boggling about this, is that Disney have forefronted physical accessibility with great dilligence at their theme parks, with attention to the use of technology to improve disabled visitors’ experiences (for example, their implementation of outdoor audio description tech won an AFB award THIS YEAR!). How they have failed to apply the same diligence to their websites is beyond me. As you say, this is a shocking failure on their part. There are striking similarities between this scenario and recent online access failing in the UK, at the promotion of the governments Digital Inclusion agenda; When apparently interested organisations continue to fail in their duties to accessible services, it’s hard not to become demoralised. How we get to the root of this problem before litigation becomes necessary remains a huge issue.

  3. Hey Sarah – I had no idea that Disney had done work to support physical disability. It really does seem at odds with the criticism that they fail to accomodate visually impaired people in their resorts. I just don’t get how you can’t accommodate one and not the other. Perhaps in the built environment physical disability is the better understood out of the two disabilities. Just as on the web visual impairment seems to be the poster child of accessibility.

    So there we go, hierarchies of impairment all over again…

  4. I knew they did, sam. Still doesn’t detract from the fact they’re refusing to provide an accessible website.

    If I point out that a city doesn’t have Braille on informational signs, are you going to point to their curb cuts and say I should do a little research?

    Disney is a very, very large corporation. The hand not only has no idea what the foot is doing, it barely knows the elbow even exists. There are serious problems with Disney’s overall accessibility policies, even if in spots they’re at or ahead of other companies.

    I find this akin to anyone criticizing some part of American foreign policy being told they hate America. It’s not mean to engage the conversation, only shut it down.

  5. @Sam This piece isn’t about physical services, neither is it a ‘diatribe’ – and it’s not written on the basis of ‘one’ press release; it’s written on the basis of a legal suit, Disney’s own representations and Henny’s extensive expert knowledge of web standards and accessibility. All the best.

  6. @Sam, I think it’s even more poignant that Disney fail to accomodate people with disabilities online when they do in other aspects of their business. This is why I highlight the need for a company wide accessibility policy and a lead for online services. The point still stands.

    As @dw says large companies often have gaps and shortfalls with regards to many policies and inclusion often falls into this category.

  7. And yet Disney doesn’t even caption its television commercials. now, how easy and relatively cheap is captioning a 60-second commercial? Please, their behavior, policies and practices are very inconsistent. What is their official position or policy statement on accessibility. Perhaps they need to step back and conduct a full corporate audit and produce a real, affirming and affirmative plan of action.

  8. Pingback: Carrot vs stick: do lawsuits lead to more accessible websites? | Unleash Web Access

  9. As a blind mom with twin boys, age 5, I have been very aware of the accessibility issues with Disney, Nickelodeon, Webkinz, and so on. As a parent, I am not able to help my children through these sites, easily access color pages for them, or get them to the games that so many of their friends enjoy. Because I am blind, my kids are missing out, and that is unreasonable and unnecessary. Aside from this and even more so important, their are blind children out there who love Disney as much as sighted children. How can this monster corperation ignore them, especially since they and their parents are putting money in Disney’s pocket almost daily, from character tooth paste and bandaids to the few thousand dropped at the theme parks. I agree Disney: exhibit the values you promote. What would Mickey Mouse say if I told him that the website was not accessible? Maybe from Mickey’s perspective, Disney might find a responsible and reasonable answer.

  10. Hi Lisa, thank you for taking the time to post your comment. It really saddened me to read it. Your story is a side of it that is often not even thought about: how parents can share with their kids. Really, really crap.
    I know there are good people past and present at Disney. I just wish they could get heard.

  11. There’s obviously too much distance between departments, without a proper corporate policy it’ll only ever be down to the goodwill and understanding of individuals.

    Lisa/Henny – it’s a sad state of affairs but not a lost cause by any means. Robin Christopherson is pretty influential and regularly preaches the message of disabled parents needing to navigate to and around kids’ content, and there are some alternatives to Disney/Nick which have just as good content & brands but are more accessible. Don’t really want to advertise here but feel free to get in touch.

  12. Pingback: Carrot vs stick: do lawsuits lead to more accessible websites? | Widen the Web

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