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?