The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discriminating against people with disabilities and requires businesses to ensure such individuals have equal access to goods, services and information.
When ADA regulators released new rules in 2010, however, the agency did not give extensive specifications for making equipment accessible to the disabled in most use cases. As a result, manufacturers of self-serve devices such as kiosks have not had clear guidelines for meeting ADA requirements.
This lack of clarity has led to more than a few instances in which people with disabilities have encountered problems trying to use self-serve kiosks. Several have filed lawsuits, claiming that the devices did not meet ADA requirements.
Will the law determine function?
The vagaries of ADA regulations could result in a situation in which lawsuits determine what functionalities kiosks must provide.
The only specific requirements that apply to most kiosks involve forward and side reach. For example, if a kiosk can be accessed via a forward reach and is unobstructed, the screen must be 48 inches high at most and 15 inches at minimum.
While these requirements have been helpful, they do not cover all access issues that a person with a disability might encounter. Equipment that meets these requirements is often listed as "ADA compliant," when in fact, it might not meet the needs of the blind or hearing-impaired.
"It's very typical for a hardware manufacturer to state that their product is ADA compliant simply because of its physical dimensions, or that it can be equipped with a keypad that offers a tactile interface to navigate visual, menu-based information that is presented on the touchscreen," said Tom McClelland, president of DynaTouch, a self-service kiosk solutions provider.
"The lack of commonly understood and commonly deployed assistive technologies is a large and growing problem for the self-serve kiosk industry," he said. "ADA compliance is about the solution, not the hardware or the software or the content. The solution is the careful integration of all three of those."
Peter Berg, project coordinator for technical assistance at the ADA National Network, an organization funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said that to the best of his knowledge, the Justice Department has not taken any action over ADA compliance assertions by manufacturers.
He would not be surprised, however, if a number of them run afoul of consumer protection laws in some states.
"If someone alleges their product does X, Y and Z and it doesn't do X,Y and Z, someone could argue that's fraud," Berg said.
The bigger issue, however, is how well the needs of the disabled are being addressed.
"There are very good guidelines out there that allow accessible technology to be developed," Berg said.
The ADA does contain more specific standards for ATMs, fare vending machines, vending machines and fuel dispensers.
For example, if an ATM offers additional functionalities such as coupon dispensing, ticket sales or statement printing, all such functions must be available to customers via speech output.
Federal kiosk requirements
Section 508 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act outlines more extensive requirements for federal government kiosks, digital signage, websites and other IT systems. It requires that government agencies provide disabled individuals with access to electronic information technology.
Section 508 has been cited by some industry observers as the best standard for assisting hard-of-hearing and visually impaired individuals.
The most commonly deployed assistive technologies are user-selectable video and audio settings, external audio headset connectors, adjustable screens and keyboard- or keypad-driven selections, McClelland said.
"Most government kiosks have at least rudimentary assistive technologies (user selectable settings, audio headset connectors, etc.), however, not many have taken advantage of more comprehensive technologies required for extremely disabled users or those who are unsighted," he said. "But the trend is changing, due to more public awareness."
Improved access matters
The need to improve access for the disabled community as a whole is critical. For instance, many self-serve devices that sell products can only be identified by sight.
The ADA requires that places of public accommodation provide "appropriate auxiliary aids and services where necessary to ensure effective communication with individuals with disabilities," unless place "can demonstrate that taking those steps would fundamentally alter the nature of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations being offered, or would result in an undue burden, i.e., significant difficulty or expense."
And so, the lawsuits continue.
Class action complaints
Redbox faced two class actions alleging that its DVD rental kiosks are not accessible to the blind. The first was filed in 2012; after two years, the parties entered into a California-wide class settlement under which Redbox agreed to incorporate audio guidance technology, a tactile keypad and other accessibility features into its DVD rental kiosks in California; provide 24-hour telephone assistance at each kiosk; and pay $1.2 million in damages, $85,000 for kiosk testing, $10,000 in damages to each named plaintiff, and $800,000 for plaintiffs' attorney fees and costs.
The second class action suit was filed in 2014 and resulted in a proposed settlement, the terms of which are still being negotiated.
In 2015, separate class action suits were filed against Moe's, Walgreens and Five Guys over inaccessible drink dispensers (the Coca-Cola Freestyle machine). The plaintiffs argued that the dispensers should have had technology that would allow them to use the machines independently. In one case, a district court held that "under the ADA, effective assistance from Moe's employees acting as ‘qualified readers' is sufficient," and that the restaurant was not obligated to provide blind accessible drink dispensers.
In 2016, blind plaintiffs sued Panera over its touch screen kiosks for self-ordering, which they claimed were not accessible to the blind. The case was settled quickly without providing much insight into the public accommodations requirements courts may seek to impose.
The final article in this series will take a closer look at assistive technologies for the disabled. Read part 1.
/ Elliot Maras is the editor of KioskMarketplace.com and FoodTruckOperator.com.