Most people I know have difficulty with airline websites, but people I know who live with disabilities have an even harder time. In 2013, the US DOT issued a rule stating that all US public airline booking systems on websites and in kiosks must comply with the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) version 2.0 level AA by December 12, 2015. The remaining content on these websites must be compliant by December 2016. This rule is designed to address the huge obstacles to airline travel faced by many of us who live with disabilities.
Much of what I’ve been reading about this rule and it’s application to US airlines websites and kiosks contains the flavor of, “this is going to be incredibly hard,” or “too little/too late.” But at WeCo, we are most interested in what the day-to-day impacts of this rule will be for those of us who live with disabilities when we use air travel.
What will compliance to this rule mean for our real life accessibility? To understand that we need to take a look at why airone websites and kiosks are exceptionally challenging to users who live with disabilities. Keep in mind that this is only a brief list and we are by no means covering everything. However, I think this should give you a pretty clear picture of the frustrations and what the DOT rule is hoping to solve.
- Forms Access: Airline websites and kiosks are a repository of a huge amount of responsive forms. Many of these forms are linked together, almost like a flow chart. You select one option and you are led to another form, while another option will lead you to another series of forms you’ll need to complete. For those of us who are blind or low vision and can’t see these forms we’re completing, software may read out to us the names of the fields we need to complete. It’s extremely common for website forms to contain fields that have no labels for nonvisual users. Screen reader software may read, “field” or “blank,” making it impossible for the user to provide the information needed to purchase tickets, select a seat or check baggage. For those of us living with disabilities that limit our fine motor skills, the “time out” feature found on lengthy airline ticket booking software means that we can become extremely exhausted in the purchase process. It can also mean that halfway through the form, our information will disappear when the “time out” feature kicks in, forcing us to start all over.
- Search Mechanisms: Airline websites can be a wealth of vital information to any air traveler. This information can be of vital importance if you live with a disability. For instance, understanding policies in advance for your service animal traveling with you or for bringing medical paraphanalia onboard a flight, can ease anxiety about your journey considerably. A properly set search box mechanism is key to assisting travelers with locating this information, especially if people access websites non-visually, with reader or magnification software. Good search mechanisms are also extremely helpful to people who have difficulty typing, such as those of us who have arthritis or forms of paralysis that affect our hands. Travelers who live with cognitive disabilities may easily become frustrated if they need to search several times to locate information. Another important factor to a good search mechanism is being able to detect the search box itself. It is not uncommon for WeCo’s Certified Test Team to have difficulty locating search boxes because the color contrast for the box is so low, we can’t detect it visually.
- Download Information Isn’t Transferrable to Other Formats: In this world of cloud data, aps and e-ticketing, it’s not easy for many people to understand that electronic formats aren’t convenient for everyone in every circumstance. It isn’t easy for many web developers and software engineers to understand this before they begin working with WeCo’s Certified Test Consultants, but they tell us we really bring this point to life for them when they receive our training and work with us on their product testing. For nonvisual users, an e-ticket may not be designed to allow their screen reader software to read the boarding pass gate location, or baggage claim information, for instance. As is sometimes the case for travelers who don’t live with a disability, we may prefer to have a pass printed and in our pocket where we can refer to it without opening up a phone or tablet. That is why having information that is designed to be downloaded structured so that it can be printed in other formats, such as Braille, is essential. One of the biggest stumbling blocks to making download information accessible in other formats is that native documents (original version) are not properly structured for accessibility. In a nutshell, this means that steps have been taken in the native document to properly mark navigation points for assistive device identification, especially for nonvisual users, such as headings and numbered lists.Another issue is that some PDFs may also simply be a photograph of the words they display, sometimes called “info graphics.” These documents do not contain any type of content structure that can serve as identification markers for assistive devices. These types of documents need to be switched out for those that can provide navigation structure.
- Lack of Process Direction/Too Many Steps: When airline websites contain highly involved processes for online check-in and seat selection, for instance, users living cognitive and motor skill challenges may become frustrated and exhausted. This is also true for travelers who are blind or who have low vision, and are listening to instructions, word-by-word. It’s important for these websites to minimize the steps involved for travel process and to provide easy to understand instructions with “success signals” to let users know that they’re on the right track in completing travel steps.
- Limited Human Interface: The most frequent complaint I hear from colleagues who live with disabilities in conjunction with air travel is having limited access to real people to assist them in ticket purchase and pre-flight check in. All too often, human interface is limited and occurs only after pressing many buttons (on the phone or computer) and after a long wait. Assistive devices, such as screen readers, often don’t detect “chat boxes” making waiting in line on the phone the only option for travelers who are blind or who have low vision. Shortening the time travelers spend waiting to receive direct service from airline staff is essential, both on the phone and computer. Making online chat boxes accessible to nonvisual users is also a must. Once connected with an airline representative, there are few of these staff who have received training in understanding the needs of people traveling with disabilities, outside of, “do you need a wheelchair or someone to meet you at the gate?” Providing training to staff regarding the needs of clients who live with disabilities, would go a long way to helping these individuals do their jobs well, and also make them feel more confident in delivering the service travelers living with disabilities need from them.