Blind spot: marketing to the visually impaired

The internet has made life a lot easier for hearing impaired travelers by effectively eliminating the need to talk to travel purveyors. For the visually impaired, however, it has been all downhill when it comes to accessibility. That a couple of lawsuits against airlines by visually affected customers have gone in favor of the carriers seems only to have added to their woes.

Early last month, in a closely watched case against JetBlue Airways, a California court ruled that airline websites and airport kiosks were not covered by the state's anti-discrimination law. That followed a disappointingly similar outcome to a case, also in California, in April against United Airlines. (Lawsuits by the visually impaired against websites date back to the internet's infancy when the National Federation of the Blind sued AOL in 1999). While prevailing in court may have been the carriers' proximate objective they would be ill-advised in not addressing the real needs of a very real revenue accretive market.

The World Health Organization estimates that there are 284 million people who are visually impaired worldwide of whom 39 million are blind with the remaining  245 having low vision. Recognizing the need and the market, some organizations and companies have adapted their products and services to cater to the niche market. Among them are talking set-top boxes for HDTV by the Australian company Bush Australia that use text to speech technology.

Last month, the United States Federal Communication Commission, the regulatory body with oversight over communications by radio, television, wire, satellite and cable, decided to reinstate video description defined as "narrated descriptions of a television program’s key visual elements inserted into natural pauses in the program’s dialogue".

Technology that enables the visually impaired to "read" websites like the Kurzweil 1000 is already available albeit at a considerable cost. That it can and must be adopted by all airlines is evidenced by the agreement in January of this year between Travelocity and the National Federation of the Blind. The agreement was to make accessible by July 1st of this year the travel giant's "home page and each initial Web page used for searching Flights, Hotels, Vacation Packages, Last Minute Packages, Cars and Rail, Cruises, and Activities, with the accessibility of the rest of the pages needed to complete a booking to follow soon after.  Travelocity has committed to make its entire Web site fully accessible to blind people by March 30, 2012."

While hospitality companies' websites arguably face less of a compelling need to immediately revamp their websites owing to the presence of call centers that can cater to visually impaired it would behoove them to consider a retool for the not too distant future. On the other hand, it is clear that airlines have an immediate and pressing need to do so. If not, there are going to be many more instances of the situation that Delta found itself in when a blind flier was charged a $25 fee for calling to make a booking resulting in a (very avoidable) loss of PR and revenue.


Published by

Vijay Dandapani

Co-founder and president of a New York based hotel company for 24 years. Grew the firm to five hotels in Manhattan and also developed a greenfield project at MacArthur airport, New York. Speaker at numerous prestigious forums including Economy Hotels World Asia, Lodging Conference, NYU, Columbia University Real Estate Roundtable, Baruch College's Zicklin School and ALIS. President and ceo of New York City Hotel Association since January 2017.