June 28, 2005.
New York Times.
Peggy Elliott, who is blind, would like the airlines to add Braille or voice activation to self-service kiosks so that she could use them.
Even during peak travel times, the line at the American Airlines ticket counter in Philadelphia moves quickly for most business travelers. But not for Peggy Elliott, who waited nearly an hour to check in for a recent flight.
"People were zipping past me because they could use the self-service kiosks," said Ms. Elliott, a lawyer from Grinnell, Iowa. "I had to stand in a long line to wait for a ticket agent."
Then again, Ms. Elliott is not like most business travelers. She is blind.
New technologies, including airport check-in kiosks and Web-based reservations systems, have been heavily promoted by the travel industry as conveniences for customers. Unfortunately, they are not convenient for all customers.
Self-service airline terminals can be difficult or impossible to use for people with mobility, visual or hearing impairments. The same goes for hotel kiosks. And Web sites that are not carefully coded can be rendered useless to blind travelers who are using special screen readers to get access.
These shortcomings shut out more travelers than commonly thought. The latest census reported that one in five Americans have a "long-lasting condition or disability," including 9.3 million people with sight or hearing loss.
"Basically, they've developed all this technology with very little input by people with disabilities," said Candy Harrington, the editor of Emerging Horizons, a magazine about accessible travel. "I believe the travel industry wants to accommodate as many people as possible, but it's not easy."
For example, to make check-in kiosks work for travelers with visual impairments, the machines would have to undergo a costly retrofit to add a Braille reader or audio prompts. Alternately, the airline or hotel could provide an employee to help people with disabilities use the machines.
That is what should have happened to Ms. Elliott in Philadelphia, according to American Airlines. "The kiosks have agents and customer service representatives who circulate around them to offer assistance to any passenger who may need some sort of help with the process," said an airline spokesman, Tim Smith.
Business travelers who have trouble with mobility also feel left out by new technology. Rick Dagostino, a quadriplegic who founded R. D. Equipment, a West Barnstable, Mass., company that produces accessibility products, is put off by Web sites that do not accommodate people with disabilities. His preferred Web site, Expedia, does not allow him to book a handicapped-accessible room, for example.
"Before I make a reservation, I have to go through several extra steps," he said. "I have to call the hotel to find out if the room has handicapped facilities. For me, that doubles the amount of work."
David Dennis, a spokesman for Expedia, said hotels do not categorize wheelchair-accessible rooms in Expedia's reservations systems. To make up for it, the online travel agency allows guests to note any "special requests" when they reserve a room, which can include a request for an accessible room.
Advocates for the disabled are pushing the travel industry to do better. Recently they started lobbying companies to make their Web sites and kiosks more accessible, citing the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Air Carrier Access Act. But they have been only marginally successful.
The California Legislature is considering a bill that would require all self-service kiosks installed or renovated after Jan. 1, 2010, to be fully accessible to the blind, but it is encountering opposition from the lodging industry, which claims the law would be too expensive to implement. Southwest Airlines recently prevailed in a case that would have required it to make its Web site more accessible to the visually impaired.
James McCarthy, the director of governmental affairs for the National Federation of the Blind, said accessibility is not the only reason Web and check-in technologies need to be changed. The alternatives are often more expensive to travelers. Airlines have begun charging fees for tickets purchased by phone or in person, instead of online. "I fear that in time, the hotel industry will assess fees upon those who opt to use the traditional check-in methods and speak to human beings," he said.
Some travel companies are not waiting for the courts to decide their fate. The budget hotel chain Microtel Inns & Suites, which is owned by U.S. Franchise Systems, a part of the Global Hyatt Corporation, recently overhauled its Web site to be usable by travelers with visual impairments. Its Web pages feature clearer font styles that are suited to lower screen resolutions, and all graphical elements come with text equivalents so that screen readers can better interpret them. "The new site also includes an entire section dedicated to our A.D.A. accommodations," said Allison Solomon, director of electronic marketing for U.S. Franchise Systems, referring to rooms offered under the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, which operates more than 40 luxury properties, recently announced plans to install self-service kiosks in its hotels in North America. Although the machines are not accessible to the blind, Fairmont added a third check-in option for guests with disabilities. Each property will have an employee called a "roving ambassador" in the lobby, equipped with a wireless-enabled Tablet PC. "The ambassadors will be able to meet guests with special needs," said Jeff Senior, Fairmont's senior vice president for marketing and sales.
Offering an alternative means of check-in, like an airline or hotel employee that can assist someone with a disability, is an acceptable stopgap solution, said Thomas A. Powers, the chief research officer for Siemens Hearing Instruments in Piscataway, N.J., which makes hearing aids. But ultimately, he added, these new technologies will have to adapt to the needs of the disabled in a smarter way than they do now. "Ideally, the reservation would note that you're visually impaired or hearing impaired," he said. "Then it could change the touch-screen interface based on your needs."
Ms. Elliott, the lawyer, said she would like to be able to use the kiosks. "I think in the rush to develop these technologies, people aren't thinking about anyone other than the sighted, able, mainstream traveler," she said. "It's regrettable that they are not trying to include more people."
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