Making Travel Websites Accessible For Blind Travelers

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Before the late 1990s, air travel was often booked through airlines and travel agents, either in person or over the phone. After the Internet was widely adopted in the mid-1990s, online travel booking websites like Expedia and Orbitz took on the lion’s share of the work done by travel agents, leveling the playing field for deaf and hard-of-hearing travelers who otherwise needed help booking over the phone, or drove to the nearest travel agent office to make their arrangements. Yet, what has been an immeasurable benefit for deaf travelers has come at the expense of blind travelers, who find these online travel websites difficult to access, and continue to arrange their itineraries by phone or in person, or rely on sighted people to make the online arrangements for them.

The explosion of online travel booking websites has made it significantly easier for most travelers to make their own travel arrangements — it takes just a few minutes to purchase airfare and book a hotel, compared to the one hour it usually takes over the phone (mostly waiting time). Yet, in today’s transformed travel landscape, where travel agents have less clout, and mom-and-pop travel agencies are closing up shop, it is increasingly more difficult for blind travelers to navigate the travel booking business. Which is unfortunate because the best airline deals are usually found online.

This may be about to change. On Monday, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) announced an agreement with Travelocity, one of the leading online travel agencies, to make Travelocity’s web site more accessible to people with blindness. As part of the agreement, by July 2011, Travelocity will make its home page and search pages accessible, and its entire web site will be fully accessible to the blind by the end of March 2012.

With this announcement, Travelocity becomes the first major online travel agency to commit to ensuring its website is accessible to travelers with blindness. Other major online travel websites such as Expedia and Orbitz still contain significant accessibility barriers for travelers. And in today’s Web 2.0 environment, when travelers increasingly go to meta-search engines like Kayak and Hipmunk to find the best travel deals, these meta-search engines are not easily accessible for the blind, either.

As more business-to-consumer and business-to-business transactions are increasingly being conducted online on both desktop and mobile devices, web accessibility for people with disabilities has become mission-critical. It is not simply enough to be able to buy books and kitchen gadgets on, or to bid for antiques on eBay. Starbucks recently announced that its Starbucks Card mobile app now enables you to pay for your coffee with your smartphone. In an increasingly cashless economy, blind consumers should not only be able to book their airline tickets on the Web, but also carry out transactions on other Websites and mobile devices. Travelocity’s announcement only scratches the surface of what is possible, not only for blind travelers, but for all consumers with disabilities.

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