COLUMBIA, S.C. – Providing special functionality to make Web sites work for the blind may be the right thing to do for some credit unions but it's not yet the law. A federal judge in Miami recently dismissed a lawsuit that claimed Southwest Airlines violated the Americans with Disabilities Act because its Web site was not accessible to the blind. The suit, pursued by a Florida non-profit group named Access Now, wanted to force Southwest to make its site accessible to the visually impaired, of course, but also wanted to make the case that business Web sites, just like brick-and-mortar businesses, are public places under the ADA. Federal Judge PatriciaSeitz was not willing to go that far, ruling that expanding the ADA to "cover `virtual' spaces would be to create new rights without well-defined standards." She suggested it's up to Congress to establish those standards. The online world does have some standards for such access, but the judge said she found the standards set by the World Wide Web Consortium to be outdated and not a generally accepted authority. How does the ruling affect the credit union world? "Making information Web-accessible to the disabled is voluntary for privately owned Web sites – the ADA does not currently require it," says Valerie Moss, director of compliance information for CUNA in Washington, D.C. However, federal Web sites do have to be, under a different law, and that may have a ripple effect. "Companies serving federal government clients will probably be making separate versions for their clients in the private sector," Moss says. "So this undoubtedly is the wave of the future. "As companies, and credit unions, upgrade their software, they'll naturally be buying products that will be more accessible to individuals with disabilities." And while the Miami judge's ruling was a first, it may not be the last. Some advocacy groups say they'll continue their efforts in that direction, and the financial services industry can be expected to continue to look for ways to make the online world as accessible as it can, industry participants say. One credit union already doing that is NASA Federal Credit Union in Bowie, Md., which began offering a blind-accessible version of its Web site about two years ago. "Why? Because we have several visually impaired members who rely on our Web site for information," says John Roderus, assistant vice president/E-branch for the 66,000-member, $570 million CU. Roderus says it was not a technical challenge. "We simply created a text-only version of our site and invisibly linked to it at the first tab spot, so members using screen readers would hit that link first," he says. Screen readers – available as part of some operating systems and as add-ons to others – read text aloud and provide an alternative to the access already provided to the visually impaired by voice-response systems and, of course, tellers and call-center staffers. While NASA FCU created its own solution for its part of its Web offerings, its efforts were aided by the fact that the system created by its home-banking vendor, FundsXPress, was "designed with input from a blind employee there to ensure that it, too, was navigable using screen readers," Roderus says. Somer Zinnecker, spokeswoman for the Texas-based e-services firm, says FundsXPress tests its solutions "with sight-impaired software called JAWS to ensure that any changes or modifications we make to the user interface are able to be read by this software, which is one of the leading applications used by the sight-impaired." Another leader in that field is the Bobby software, and Zinnecker says, "We also refer our client institutions to the Web site, where they can run their own Web site against an evaluation process and get feedback on problem areas and how to address them." Moss compares the Web site issue with ATM accessibility. "You probably remember hearing about the Access Board's proposed accessibility guidelines for `talking ATM's' for the blind," she says. "This proposal stalled, but some financial institutions began rolling out talking ATM's in anticipation of new requirements. We haven't heard anything on this issue for a while now." Of course, that could change, and it's something that core technology providers are keeping an eye on. "As far as credit unions not being bound by the ADA, this is true, but it could change any day," says Rick Foy, public and media relations manager for Liberty Enterprises. He says his company also works to make its systems' functionality more available to physically challenged people in any way it can. "For the Web site, we can only make it easier for the user to navigate by using an interface that is non-visual, which we do by using Alt tags that provide meaningful information, as well as text-based navigational links," Foy says. "We see people with disabilities as an important part of credit union membership and will strive to provide a user experience that encourages them to return to the credit union Web site," says Foy. "There hasn't been much demand yet for growing accessibility for our credit union Web sites, but our team reports growing momentum in the industry at large," he says. (More information on the issue of accessibility can be found on the Access Board Web site at -


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