BECU shows ADA disputes don't have to be acrimonious

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Website accessibility has become a hot-button issue for credit unions over the last year – due in no small part to one law firm in California that has generated hundreds of demand letters to CUs alleging violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act, even though in many cases the alleged plaintiff had no ability to join the credit union in question. But $18.6 billion BECU, Tukwila, Wash., showed what can happen with disabled members approach a credit union looking for an actual solution, as opposed to an attorney seeking a payout.

The National Federation of the Blind, its Washington affiliate and three blind individuals recently reached an agreement with BECU. As a part of this agreement, BECU said it will work in collaboration with the NFB and its members to make the credit union’s website and mobile banking app fully accessible to blind users.

According to the NFB, blind people access websites and mobile apps with what is known as screen reader software, which speaks text aloud or outputs it to a refreshable Braille display. However, websites and mobile applications that are not coded according to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines version 2.0, or other accessibility guidelines, reportedly do not interact well with screen reader technology, making it difficult or impossible for blind users to access some or all of a website or app’s information or functions.

Mike Zell, VP of digital for BECU, told Credit Union Journal several of the credit union’s blind and visually impaired members partnered with NFB and its Washington chapter to alert BECU that the credit union’s digital channels were not fully accessible.

“We met in person with NFB and several of our blind members, and recognized that the accessibility of our digital channels did need improvement,” said Zell.

BECU said it has committed to long-term policies and procedures – including an employee training program – to ensure accessibility is maintained. The credit union agreed to pay an undisclosed settlement amount without any associated admission of liability.

Given the number of lawsuits alleging violations of the ADA by credit union websites, Zell was asked if the NFB filed any sort of legal action against BECU.

“There was no lawsuit and no need for a lawsuit,” he said. “BECU agrees in principle with NFB and our blind members, so a settlement agreement was the most efficient way to document a formal remediation plan, and to compensate both NFB and our members for the time and effort they invested in bringing this issue to our attention.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Zell added.

Mark Riccobono, president of the National Federation of the Blind, released a statement praising BECU for its willingness to work with NFB to resolve the issue.

“Blind people must budget, keep track of our accounts, pay our bills, make deposits and transfer funds just like everyone else,” Riccobono said. “Since these functions are now increasingly and sometimes exclusively performed via web or mobile applications, the blind must have full and equal access to these modern financial tools. We commend Boeing Employees’ Credit Union for agreeing in good faith to aggressive steps that will ensure access to its website and mobile applications now and into the future. We particularly appreciate that BECU has agreed to the testing of these services by blind people throughout the process, and we look forward to working with this institution to achieve the goal of equal access. We urge other banks across the country to meet the same standard of access for their customers and invite them to work closely with us in doing so.”

What is changing with BECU’s digital channels

As part of BECU’s agreement with NFB, the credit union said it is focused on accessibility improvements that primarily relate to:

· Better mobile and website design and navigation so BECU’s digital channels work well with leading screen reader technologies;
· Improved color contrast and text magnification functionality;
· Creating standards so BECU will be able to stay on track with accessibility requirements in the future; and
· Partnering with blind and visually impaired members for testing and quality assurance on all accessibility improvements.

Zell said the work to achieve full accessibility of BECU’s website is expected to be completed by March 31, 2019. Improvements to the mobile app have begun and are expected be completed by May 31, 2019.

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