Appeals court reinstates disabled group’s suit against ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’

By Brian Bandell, The Associated Press
Friday June 21, 2002

MIAMI — A federal appeals court has reinstated a lawsuit alleging that ABC discriminates against disabled people trying to become contestants on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” 

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided that the lawsuit contained a valid claim that the show’s qualifying system, which uses touch-tone phones, violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.  

A three-judge panel likened the phone system to other “places of public accommodation” covered under the law. 

District Judge Federico Moreno in Miami had concluded in 2000 that the ADA isn’t broad enough to cover the show’s telephone qualifying process. The panel ordered Tuesday that he review the decision. 

The show, which stars host Regis Philbin, is not on ABC’s fall schedule, but is expected to return in special events, probably running several nights in a row. A syndicated version starring Meredith Vieira is scheduled to debut in September. 

“We don’t want to alter or make changes in the show, but we want to make it fair,” Michael Lanham, the lawyer for the people suing the network and the show’s producers, said Wednesday. “All we want is for reasonable accommodations to be made.” 

ABC spokeswoman Julie Hoover said the ruling was “decided a narrow legal issue.” 

“We are confident that in the end the litigation will show that our practices comply fully with all applicable laws,” Hoover said. 

Miami’s Center for Independent Living filed the suit two years ago, saying the show’s qualification system excludes hearing-impaired people and those who can’t operate touch-tone phones. 

Contestants initially qualify by calling a toll-free number and correctly answering five questions using their phone’s touch-tone pad.  

The show’s Web site says 100,000 people call every day the phone lines are open, with 4 percent correctly answering the questions. 

Disability rights advocates say the network should use live operators or a different system to help the hearing-impaired. The show does not use voice-recognition software, which would allow computers to understand the callers’ spoken responses. 

The show also selects contestants with auditions featuring a written test offered in major cities and at colleges. 

Lanham didn’t know how much it would cost for ABC to respond to the group’s demands but said its parent, Walt Disney Co., can afford it. 

“Can ABC and Walt Disney open their books and show me they’re not deriving a significant profit from this show?” Lanham asked. 

Under the ADA, people can sue for better access and legal fees but no money for compensation or damages.