by Christopher Gray

In the past week, some notable press has been given to litigation between an organization of the blind, not ACB, and Target, the large department store chain. It would appear that this litigation could potentially establish the right of the blind to sue companies whose web sites are not accessible. If it comes true, this would certainly be a great victory for all blind Americans.

The problem with such litigation and the press stories that surround it is that one often never experiences any true value from what one judge is alleged to have created. Too often such suits are a great means of getting publicity, sometimes even large sums of money, but we reap very little as blind individuals from what is alleged to have been done. In this case, for example, what will happen when a federal judge from a different district makes a different ruling? What will happen to this case if it is appealed? Too often, litigation like this goes nowhere and accomplishes very little. I would like to be wrong, and I wish all of the disability litigants every success in their efforts. But, one cannot help but wonder: Is every battle won in court?

ACB and its affiliates generally favor a different approach when it comes to providing access to the electronic world. For many years now, in consultation with attorneys and affiliates, ACB has continuously stood in support of creating negotiated settlements between the blind community and those directly involved in providing information and services we need most vitally. In these settlements, the organizations and our attorneys approach companies directly, explain the legal issues that could arise, describe our desire to work in collaboration on solutions that meet our needs and make good business sense, and we agree to sit down and hash out a solution that provides tangible and immediate accessibility. It can be an approach that takes time, but when completed, it isn't subject to the whims of judges or juries, and it is something over which we can form partnerships with corporations to achieve, rather than create enemies who will only do the minimum they are forced by the law to do. While the fanfare is minimal, the results are nothing short of awesome in many, many cases.

The American Council of the Blind has not only many press releases about such settlements, but just focusing on the world of banking, we have the following results to be proud of, and to help us know how we are making tangible progress in this area, not just receiving press coverage.

Here are the eight most notable of our major banking accomplishments:

(1) Bank of America settlement, talking ATMs, accessible web site, and braille statements: In 2000 Bank of America signed a comprehensive agreement with the California Council of the Blind and several CCB / ACB members to make its services accessible to blind people. Included in the agreement is the first commitment by any bank to make its web site accessible. Not only does Bank of America have over 10,000 talking ATMs and a comprehensive alternative format policy providing braille, large print and audio information, but it has one of the most accessible web sites in the private sector. When things go wrong, as of course they will, bank staff has been cooperative and eager to remedy any access issue.

(2) Bank One settlement: Like Bank of America, Bank One signed a binding written legal agreement in 2001 covering their ATMs, print materials, and web site. When Bank One merged with Chase, the bank's commitment to accessibility was carried over to the new site. An accessibility link on the home page brings readers to a comprehensive statement of the bank's commitment, which includes this statement: "Chase is actively engaged in efforts necessary to meet online usability and web page design requirements recommended by the World Wide Web Consortium ..."

(3) Fleet settlement: Also in 2001, Fleet Bank signed a comprehensive written agreement with the Bay State Council of the Blind (ACB's Massachusetts affiliate) requiring the bank's web site to meet the WCAG standards of the W3C. When Fleet merged with Bank of America, the accessibility commitment carried over in the merger.

(4) Washington Mutual settlement: In 2002, the Florida Council of the Blind, the California Council of the Blind, and ACB members in Florida and California signed an agreement with Washington Mutual. Again, the bank made a legally binding commitment to talking ATMs, alternate formats, and an accessible web site.

(5) and (6) Sovereign Bank and Citizens Bank: The Bay State Council of the Blind also reached agreements with Sovereign Bank and Citizens Bank, addressing those companies' web sites, talking ATMs, and alternate formats. An example of the outcome of those agreements is evident today on the Sovereign site, which contains the following statement: "As part of this commitment we have made this web site accessible for all users based on priorities one and two of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)."

(7) LaSalle Bank: The American Council of the Blind of Metropolitan Chicago and a blind activist in Chicago signed an agreement with LaSalle Bank in 2005 addressing the bank's web site, talking ATMs and alternate formats. The bank's site reflects its commitment to web access, stating, "We're continually enhancing our web sites to increase accessibility and usability for all of our customers. Web site enhancements are based on universal web design principles, as well as priorities one and two of the W3C's web site accessibility guidelines."

(8) Union Bank of California: The Union Bank settlement agreement signed by ACB member Margie Donovan addressed that bank's ATMs and alternative formats. Because of the positive relationships formed during the negotiations that led to the agreement, Union Bank has publicly stated its commitment to web accessibility on its site as follows: "In response to the needs of all of our customers, Union Bank of California has adopted a policy of universal web page design, based on the World Wide Web Consortium ..."

Through ACB and its affiliates, we've made a lot of headway in the world of banking and talking ATM machines. Ultimately, we have often become partners with the banks, not their adversaries.

ACB has been very active regarding department stores as well. Many of you know of our negotiated settlement with Wal-Mart stores regarding their flat panel point-of-sale machines. As a direct result of our negotiations along with ACB affiliates, Wal-Mart has had for many months now at least one accessible point-of-sale machine in every store in the country. Now, that's a tangible result, worth its weight and more in litigation paperwork and cost. ACB will have additional major announcements regarding stores in the future, perhaps by Christmas or next Valentine's Day at the latest.

ACB has also been extremely active in working to overcome new technology issues such as printed capchas, little pieces of graphical text used to thwart computerized search robots. We have worked with Google, and more recently with Sirius Communications, and the results have been excellent, and they are there for users of these services to enjoy today.

It is certainly the case that some entities with whom we must deal will not step up to the plate and negotiate for what may be legally required, but that also makes good business sense. Prime examples of this are the Department of the Treasury and the Social Security Administration. But only after attempting for years to negotiate with both of these organizations has ACB taken the step of entering into litigation with them.

What we can achieve through negotiation and partnership is unequaled by the legal system. We have the evidence of this before us every day. The independence we have achieved simply with talking ATMs is noteworthy. Our ability to stand alongside our sighted peers is amplified every day that one of us can walk up and use an ATM with independence, dignity, and privacy. I have people stop me in the street after using an ATM machine, and they're excited by what they saw. It is something they will remember for a long time, and they won't remember it about me, they'll remember it about blind people in general. What a huge win for independence!

In conclusion, I would like particularly to acknowledge the tremendous work done by two attorneys who really paved the way for these negotiated settlements. They are Lainey Feingold and Linda Dardarian, to whom we owe many "Thank yous." We started this work with no clear picture of where it might go, with no proof that the approaches tried would work. Lainey Feingold has spoken at ACB conventions, and you know how passionate she can be if you have attended or listened to her speeches. She and Linda Dardarian continue to work purposefully in conjunction with us to create a truly more accessible and ADA-compliant world.

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