The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), enacted in 1990, has been used to open countless public accommodations to people with disabilities. Now it is being used to make websites accessible as well, and this legal frontier is likely to expand in the future.
A number of cases in the past several years illustrate online accessibility issues.
In 2008, the National Federation for the Blind settled a class action lawsuit against Target Corporation that was brought under the ADA and California law. The lawsuit alleged that Target’s online store was a “public accommodation” under the meaning of the law, and it was not accessible to the blind. One of the problems allegedly stemmed from misuse of the alternative text for clickable images. Rather than a description of the image, blind users selecting an image would hear a non-descriptive filename. Target filed a motion to dismiss, claiming that its brick-and-mortar stores were accessible to the blind and that the law was only intended to apply to physical accommodations. However, a judge ruled that the lawsuit could proceed, allowing the interpretation that websites are public accommodations under the law. In the settlement, Target agreed to make changes to its website.
In 2009, Disability Rights Advocates, a non-profit public-interest law firm, settled a lawsuit against two hotel reservation websites: Hotels.com and Expedia.com. The lawsuit hinged on the inability of disabled users to search for the hotel accommodations they need, such as Braille signage, wheelchair-accessible showers and telecommunications equipment for individuals with hearing loss. Plaintiffs claimed that they were unable to take advantage of the convenience and discounts of online hotel reservations. Under the settlement agreement, the websites made changes allowing users with disabilities to search for the hotel accommodations they need and make special requests for those rooms online. Each special request will be handled individually to accommodate the customer’s needs.
Last year, the National Association of the Deaf settled a federal lawsuit against Netflix, alleging that the company violated the ADA by not providing closed-captioning for its streaming video. The plaintiffs claimed that 48 million deaf and hard-of-hearing people were prevented from using the service. In the settlement agreement, Netflix agreed to add closed-captioning to all its content by 2014. The text can be displayed on most devices on which Netflix is available. In the meantime, Netflix agreed to improve its interface to help users identify which content has closed-captioning available. The company said that is was already a leader in making content available to people who are deaf and hard-of-hearing, and that it hoped its commitment to 100 percent captioning would serve as an example for other streaming video providers.
These lawsuits successfully argued that people with disabilities should have access to accommodations in the online world just as in physical locations. These successes are already spurring other businesses to make their websites more accessible, a move that benefits people with disabilities and the businesses themselves. After all, making it easier for people to access services should improve any company’s bottom line.
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