April 17, 2013, 3:46 PM

Blind taxpayers sue H&R Block over web site accessibility

A lawsuit says the tax preparation firm denies the blind of online services.

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H&R Block Inc. says on its web site HRBlock.com that “personalized help is available no matter how you want to work with us.” The National Federation of the Blind and two individual taxpayers strongly disagree, and last week filed a federal lawsuit charging the tax preparation company with “systematically violating” federal law by denying blind people the ability to use the same online services it provides to people with sight.

In denying access to blind and visually impaired consumers, the lawsuit says that H&R Block is losing out on getting customers from the more than 6.6 million blind people in the United States. “As millions of Americans rush to prepare and file their taxes online using H&R Block’s popular web sites, blind people are unable to do so because the company has refused to make its web site accessible to us,” Dr. Marc Maurer, president of the federation, said after the lawsuit was filed. Maurer is blind.

The two individual plaintiffs in the case, Mika Pyyhkala and Lindsay Yazzolino, are legally blind, residents of Massachusetts and members of the federation. The suit says they were each unable to get beyond the H&R Block log-in page for preparing their 2012 tax returns. It notes that Pyyhkala works in technical operations at a health care organization and that Yazzolino also works in health care as a researcher.

The lawsuit, filed April 8 in the United States District Court in Massachusetts, has requested the court to certify the case as a nationwide class action on behalf of blind people and to issue a permanent injunction to prohibit H&R Block from violating federal and state law.  They ask that the injunction require the tax preparation firm to make its web sites usable by blind people. The suit contends that H&R Block is in violation of both the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and the Massachusetts Equal Rights Act under the state’s constitution “because the company’s online tax services and web sites are not accessible to blind taxpayers” as required under provisions of those laws requiring places of public business to be accessible to people with disabilities.

The suit, before Judge George A. O’Toole Jr., names as defendants H&R Block subsidiaries HRB Digital LLC and HRB Tax Group Inc., which it says own, operate and control their parent company’s web sites. It identifies as being in violation of accessibility laws the company’s main web site, HRBlock.com, and associated sites at taxes.hrblock.com, getitright.hrblock.com and anotherlook.hrblock.com, where the company provides online tax preparation software, online calculators for checking tax figures, and services for filing returns and reviewing returns filed in prior years.

The suit also notes that H&R Block offers through its web sites the ability to communicate with online with tax professionals, but that such services are not accessible to blind people because of the way the company’s web sites are designed.

H&R Block did not immediately return a request for comment.

The suit contends that many blind people use computer screen-access software programs for Windows and Apple operating systems, including Freedom Scientific Inc.’s Job Access with Speech, or JAWS, and Macfortheblind.com’s VoiceOver, along with special keyboards in systems that can vocalize visual web site content or translate it to a Braille display on a separate device. The suit also contends that web sites must be designed to support such systems, but that H&R Block’s web sites “are not designed and programmed so that they can be accessed nonvisually using screen access software,” leaving the sites unusable by blind people.

H&R Block has “been long aware of both the access barriers that prevent blind customers from accessing their web sites, and the means by which its web sites could be made accessible,” the lawsuit says. “Nevertheless, defendants refuse to make their web sites accessible to the blind.”

The plaintiffs in the case are represented by the law firms of Baltimore-based Brown, Goldstein & Levy LLP and Sugarman, Rogers, Barshak & Cohen P.C. in Boston.

The H&R Block case follows other legal actions over the past several years regarding making web sites more accessible and useful to people with disabilities. In a federal lawsuit brought by the National Federation of the Blind in 2008, Target Corp. agreed to begin making its e-commerce site more accessible to blind users after the court ruled that its web site that served as a place of public accommodation, and therefore subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act. Last fall, Netflix Inc. settled a federal case brought by the National Association of the Deaf by agreeing to put captioning on its videos. Target is No. 23 in the Internet Retailer Top 500; Netflix is No. 9.Top

The June issue of Internet Retailer magazine will feature a story about the Americans with Disabilities Act and what it means for e-retailers. 

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