U.S. Markets closed

The Food Delivery Revolution Is Leaving Disabled Customers Behind

Kristen Lopez

As a full-time freelancer with a disability, I order in, a lot. Food delivery apps aren't just a convenience for hungry users, but a life-saver for those of us with disabilities. Meals come prepared without the need for a disabled person to navigate an inaccessible kitchen or have a caregiver cook for them. And the spread of food delivery services doesn't seem to be slowing down, with sales rising 55 percent in just the last year and several delivery apps filing IPOs and offering stock options. Yet what can help those with certain disabilities can just as easily leave others behind and a landmark case might force these apps to finally acknowledge their most marginalized customers.

svetikd/Getty Images

This week the Supreme Court upheld a decision made by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals against Domino's Pizza. In 2016 the company was sued by a man named Guillermo Robles. Robles, who is blind, wanted to order a pizza from Domino's website but was unable to do so on either the chain's site or mobile app. Website accessibility for the disabled is a hot button issue, whether it's regarding food delivery or presidential candidates. But the Robles decision, specifically, brings up the limitations of food delivery in any form to appeal to those who often use it more frequently: the disabled.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as places of public accommodation restaurants are required to be accessible to the disabled. Robles was denied "the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, or accommodations of [a] place of public accommodation," which applies to brick-and-mortar restaurants and, as the court decided in this case, the Domino's Pizza website.

Domino's defense was that there are no federally agreed upon guidelines on web access, a common mitigation technique when it comes to any type of disability access. In other words, there's no set list of what to do, so best not to do anything. And yet the ability to make a site accessible is there and has been applied to countless other websites, including nearly every U.S. government website. But this case highlights the need to go further, to sites and apps that the average American visits regularly.

The Robles decision expands the already existing law to app-based food services, whether connected to a specific chain or just bringing together people with food in general. When it comes to apps like Grubhub, Postmates, or UberEats, an individual's cell phone itself can often aid in accessibility issues such as voice assistance, magnification of icons and fonts, or the ability to order with one hand. But these functions are strictly specific to cell phone users. What about websites? In doing a casual search using a website accessibility tool to check for any accessibility concerns with several food delivery websites, the results were a cause for concern:

  • Grubhub/Seamless had 34 "potential problems" ranging from the site's inability to distinguish foreground images from the background, possible seizure-inducing flashes to issues regarding the readability of the text.
  • DoorDash had 22 "potential problems" including several of those also attributed to Grubhub/Seamless. Interestingly, both were flagged for requiring a keyboard to make any selections.
  • Postmates was the biggest offender, with three "known problems" and a whopping 215 "potential problems." Not only was the website cited for not being compatible with assistive technologies, it was also brought up on issues regarding customers' inability to correct mistakes, small heading sizes, and for not providing alternative text where text wasn't already available (i.e. providing captions for photos).

These issues, usually undetected by the majority of users, can make ordering food frustrating. Antonio Romo, a 31-year-old office clerk with cerebral palsy who regularly uses Postmates, says the magnifying features on his phone only work so much with regard to food delivery apps. "I don't have the fine motor skills to hit the small ‘order' button on Postmates and my phone doesn't allow me to expand the button." It's a common issue with apps like these, many of which don't allow visually impaired users to enlarge food photos, let alone the buttons to place orders or check them.

As mentioned above, one of the potential problems listed with DoorDash, Grubhub and Seamless was the inability to navigate the site without a keyboard, which factors into more than just placing an order. In the case of Dominos, coupons and other discounts are generally found on the website and require the ability to copy and paste codes to apply them. A person with a disability that prohibits them from typing, clicking, or dragging a mouse or button is automatically unable to take advantage of these offers. Solving the keyboard issue is particularly important for nearly any mobile order site—if you are unable to work with a keyboard, not only can you not navigate the site specifically, but you also cannot take advantage of discounts purely because of your disability.

Beyond the navigation, there's also an issue with customer-to-driver communication. As a physically disabled person, I regularly utilize pizza delivery sites as well as Postmates and Grubhub. Because of my house's layout, my delivery person has to come directly to my apartment door. Most of the time this isn't a problem, though there have been the occasional moments where a driver has asked me to come outside and meet them, leaving me to awkwardly explain my inability to. Several apps have instruction boxes, though these are often limited to a set amount of characters or are more commonly utilized to distinguish apartment buildings or which entrance to utilize. In searching the Postmates app on Android, I did find a section to add instructions for my food but no option to include instructions for approaching the house. This is more troubling for those who are nonverbal. In discussing this subject on Twitter one user mentioned that "no matter where I type ‘text don't call I'm nonverbal' they call." So not only do instruction boxes for accessibility issues need to be more prominent, but delivery persons should also be expected to look at what's written in them more closely.

Food delivery services, whether that's the ability to order pizza or have your groceries delivered, are a lifeline for those with disabilities, but until now it was up to the sites themselves to care about one's ability to navigate. Hopefully, the decision in the Domino's case will compel these companies to look at their known and potential problems and do better. Everyone should be allowed to order the food they want when they want it. As their ads tout, that's the whole point of apps like these in the first place.