Mika Pyyhkala was as excited as the next person to hear that Sweetgreen, the D.C-based salad chain that trades on its reputation as a local-focused, socially-conscious place to eat healthy, was opening a location near his job as an IT analyst in Boston’s Back Bay last spring. The shop would even have a website and smartphone app that could save Pyyhkala, who is blind, the trouble of fending with a noisy, chaotic lunch line.
The problem was, he found the online portals didn’t work very well for blind people. While many apps and websites have been built to include voice technology that will rapidly read messages or explain buttons on a touchscreen when a finger passes over them, he said Sweetgreen’s was less communicative.
“You can get to the salads, but you can’t customize,” says Pyyhkala, tapping on the colorful pictures of toppings, unaware of whether they’d been added to his order. “If you click on ‘onions,’ it doesn’t say if it’s selected or un-selected, so you can’t tell if you ordered onions or not, and that’s kind of important to ordering a salad.”
That kind of barrier still inhibits the ability of people with low vision to fully participate in modern life, even as smartphones and computer technology have brought them much closer than they used to be. But the blind community doesn’t typically let such obstacles stand — and a lawsuit filed against Sweetgreen Tuesday in federal court is shaping up to be another battle in the long war for equal access.
According to the complaint, in April 2015, Pyyhkala brought the problem to the attention of Sweetgreen’s headquarters. The company’s director of content emailed to say that the issue was on the agenda to be fixed in the course of a complete website overhaul in 2016. Not satisfied with that timeline, Pyyhkala followed up until he got to Sweetgreen's chief information officer, who allegedly said the issue wasn’t a priority, and could take several years to rectify.
Eventually, he and co-plaintiff Tajuan Farmer reached the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs for help preparing a case. Sweetgreen declined to comment on the lawsuit, which argues that the company’s inaction was a violation of its obligation under the Americans with Disabilities Act to serve disabled people equally in “places of of public accommodation.”
It’s taken a lot of effort to make sure that principle applies not just to ramps and wheelchair-accessible bathrooms, but also to the electronics on which most people have increasingly come to depend.
"The first company we ever sued over this issue was AOL back in 1999 or so,” said Chris Danielsen, spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind. "So it’s always been a concern for us. We recognized that the Internet was going to be a thing, and that it was going to be important for blind people to have full access to it.”
Advocates for the blind have since pursued successful legal actions against entities ranging from Target to Amazon to the General Services Administration, whose software for bidding on government contracts essentially locked blind people out of the procurement process.
The most far-reaching case, however, was against Apple: In 2008, the Massachusetts Attorney General reached a settlement to make iTunes accessible to blind people. After that, the company leapt forward to make all of its technologies accessible — and to provide a template that makes it easy for developers to incorporate accessibility features into their apps. More recently, other companies have followed suit, and a standard protocol called WCAG makes it pretty much universal.
"Is there a switch to be flipped? In both of the major platforms, Apple and Microsoft, the answer is yes,” says Morgan Reed, executive director of a trade group for app developers called ACT | The App Association. “I’m always disappointed when I see developers who haven’t jumped on it, because come on guys, it’s not hard.”
“I’m always disappointed when I see developers who haven’t jumped on it, because come on guys, it’s not hard.”
— ACT executive director Morgan Reed
Reed points out that companies skipping the accessibility step can lose out on a potentially huge customer base: Not just people who’ve been blind from birth, but also those who lose vision as they age. Speech-to-text technology first developed for blind people is now in wide use as a convenience for people who can see just fine.
That technology, however, isn’t just a convenience for blind people. It also allows them to hold jobs they otherwise couldn’t have and navigate places they’d never been able to go before — Uber is hugely popular in the blind community, and a service called ClickandGo guides blind people through complex urban environments on foot.
"The iPhone has become a great equalizer for people with vision loss,” says Lee Huffman, a national technology associate at the American Foundation for the Blind. "App accessibility is really empowering to them, because it lets them do things that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do.”
However, there are still electronics that need improvement. Home entertainment systems are often difficult for a blind person to deal with, as are exercise machines, touch-screen airline kiosks, and tablet ordering systems at sit-down restaurants. Sometimes, despite the commercial argument for including people with low vision, legal requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act are not clear: To the disappointment of advocates for the blind, the Justice Department has postponed issuing guidelines until 2018.
And then, of course, there’s the occasional company like Sweetgreen that apparently neglected to build accessible technology into its website and apps and now faces an inconvenient fix. Often, companies in this situation reach out to blind advocacy groups for help voluntarily after they realize the problem — but not always.
“Nobody really wants to get involved in a legal action. What we really want is a resolution,” says plaintiff Tajuan Farmer. "But sometimes the reality is they’re only doing it because they’re forced to do it. And when nobody does it, they look at you funny, like you are the alien coming into their world. When it’s all said and done, you’re sitting there wondering, 'why don’t I have a salad?'”