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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Blind customers sue Walmart, saying self-serve checkouts violate ADA

FILE - This June 1, 2017, file photo, shows a Walmart sign at a store in Hialeah Gardens, Fla. Walmart-owned will soon sell Nike products on its site as it seeks to catch up with Amazon ahead of the holiday shopping season. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz, File) ORG XMIT: NYAG402 (Alan Diaz / Associated Press)
By Sarah Meehan Baltimore Sun

Three blind Maryland residents and the National Federation of the Blind have sued Walmart, alleging the company violates the Americans with Disabilities Act because its self-checkout kiosks are not fully accessible to blind customers.

The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court, also alleges an employee at the Walmart in Owings Mills, Maryland, attempted to take money from one of the plaintiffs while she was checking out at the store.

The suit says a store employee was helping Cynthia Morales with a purchase at a self-checkout kiosk in July 2017 when the employee selected an option for cash back from her debit card and took $40 without her knowledge.

“It’s important for blind people to be able to use the machines independently so that people are not stealing from us,” Morale said in an interview. “We should be treated like everybody else – when we come into the store, we would like to check out at the self-checkout quickly just like everybody else, and I know that the technology is out there.”

Other plaintiffs include Linwood Boyd of Pikesville, who was shopping with Morales when the alleged incident occurred, and Melissa Sheeder of Baltimore.

The plaintiffs are seeking a permanent injunction that would require Walmart to make its self-service kiosks throughout the U.S. accessible to blind customers; a declaration that Walmart has been violating the ADA; and court costs and attorneys’ fees.

According to the suit, Morales and Boyd were checking out at a self-service kiosk when Morales handed an employee her debit card and instructed the employee to enter her pin number on the keypad. She expected to pay about $80 for her items, according to the suit. During the transaction, the screen prompted the users to take money from the machine, the suit claims. When Morales and Boyd left the store, they asked a bystander to read the receipt and realized Morales was charged about $120.

They re-entered the store and called police, and the $40 was returned, according to the complaint.

“Money was stolen from one of our members and certainly we deplore that,” said Chris Danielsen, a spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind.

Danielsen said that even without the incident at Owings Mills, it’s “unacceptable” that sight-impaired patrons can’t serve themselves. “The technology exists for Walmart and other entities that are using these kind of self-service kiosks,” he said.

Sheeder claims in the suit that she shops at Walmart at least once a week, and that she and a friend attempted to use a self-checkout kiosk in July 2018. When they were unable to operate it, they were directed to a full-service checkout lane, where they had to wait in line.

“We don’t tolerate discrimination, and we believe our checkout procedures comply with applicable law,” Randy Hargrove, a spokesman for Walmart, said in an emailed statement late Friday. “When we learned of this specific situation with Ms. Morales, we looked into the matter and as a result, the associate is no longer with the company. We take this matter seriously and will respond as appropriate with the court.”

Danielsen said he’s not aware of any large retailers that incorporate self-checkout kiosks that are fully accessible to blind people, but he pointed to self-service software for machines such as ATMs, Amtrak ticket booths and taxicabs that allow blind people to operate the devices independently.

“We know that it’s possible to make a self checkout kiosk accessible. It just has to be thought of at the design stage,” said Jessica P. Weber, an attorney who is part of a team from the Baltimore firm Brown, Goldstein & Levy representing the plaintiffs. The lawsuit says the National Federation of the Blind attempted to work with Walmart to address problems with the kiosks prior to filing suit.

“The civil rights of blind people can’t wait indefinitely and so we’re going to forge ahead,” Weber said.