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Blind businessman sues SBA for Web site access


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POSTED: Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Virgil Stinnett, owner of Honolulu-based business Good News HI, which provides food services for military units, wants to get a message across.

Stinnett, who is legally blind, is suing the U.S. Small Business Administration for denying people who are blind equal access to its Web site, http://www.sba.gov.

Stinnett has been trying to apply for Section 8(a) certification from the SBA, which would help him expand his business, but he said that part of the Web site is not coded so his text-to-voice translation software can decipher it.

"My whole purpose is to open their eyes," said Stinnett.

The lack of access is a violation of federal law, specifically Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, according to Stinnett's attorney, Daniel Goldstein of Baltimore.

Goldstein said his firm, Brown Goldstein Levy LLP, is looking at additional federal entities that fall short of this requirement.

SBA officials did not respond to Star-Bulletin requests for comment. A spokeswoman said the agency usually does not comment on pending litigation.

Stinnett, a former commercial fisherman who lost his sight 13 years ago, said he has been trying to apply for the certification for about a year.

Obtaining Section 8(a) certification is a steppingstone toward expanding Good News HI, he said. It would allow him to bid for military contracts anywhere in the United States or abroad.

Good News HI, formerly a small snack shop, has 39 employees and a contract providing food services at Kunia Tunnel, the National Security Agency's underground regional operation center.

The SBA says on its Web site that the online application process typically takes 90 days. Though a paper application is available upon written request, it recommends businesses apply electronically to avoid delays.

While Stinnett could hire someone to complete the online application, he said he would rather not because sensitive personal financial information is involved.

Stinnett, also president of the Honolulu chapter of the National Federation of the Blind, said the point is that he should be able to do it himself if the SBA simply programmed its Web site properly.

"I'm not asking for special treatment," he said. "I just want them to make their site as accessible as they can based on what the law says."

Stinnett and his wife, who is also blind, both surf the Web regularly for news and to book plane tickets. They have software that can translate text from the computer screen into speech, as well as an imaging device that can transmit the words from a menu or business card into sound. They are also equipped with a special Braille machine that can print documents.

Goldstein said more Web sites are taking shortcuts in design that skip "alt text tags" that would enable the screen-reading software to convert them into speech. Many fancy graphics are not coded, thus preventing a blind person from deciphering them, he said.

Making a Web site accessible to the blind comes at a small additional cost, he added. "This is not rocket science," said Goldstein. "It's pretty straightforward."

Last year, Target Corp. settled a class-action suit filed by the National Federation of the Blind in San Francisco's federal district court regarding access to Target.com. Target agreed to pay $6 million in damages and make its Web site accessible.

Goldstein said it makes good business sense to serve the visually impaired market, which can also include baby boomers losing their vision, and people with dyslexia.

The suit's main purpose is to raise awareness of the plight of those with vision challenges, he said. The federation has more than 50,000 members nationwide, and about 100 in Hawaii.

"You can't function in the modern world," said Goldstein.

"In the U.S. you can't compete for education, employment, even socially, if you don't have access to the Web site."