The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., significantly affected businesses across the country, requiring them to install facilities to ensure accessibility for people with disabilities. After more than 25 years, this aspect of the ADA has become commonplace, but the ADA’s reach to online, “virtual” spaces is still a matter of dispute. As more and more business is conducted online, the issue of website accessibility has gained in importance. This refers to measures that allow people with disabilities, such as impaired vision, hearing, or mobility, to use a website. A recent trial in an ADA discrimination lawsuit is believed to be the first to address website accessibility under the ADA. Gil v. Winn Dixie Stores, Inc., No. 1:16-cv-23020, verdict and order (S.D. Fla., Jun. 12, 2017). The verdict, which found a business liable for failing to make its website accessible to an individual with vision impairment, could affect businesses all over the country.
Title III of the ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability by “public accommodations,” which are defined broadly to include hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores, laundromats and other service-oriented businesses, public transportation terminals, parks, museums, schools, and exercise or recreation venues like bowling alleys. 42 U.S.C. § 12181(7). The statute requires businesses “to design and construct facilities…that are readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities,” unless doing so would be “structurally impracticable.” Id. at § 12183(a)(1). It set a deadline of “30 months after July 26, 1990.” Id. Perhaps the most common conception of an accommodation required by the ADA is a wheelchair ramp that allows access to a building. This is far from the only type of disability covered by the ADA, however.
When Congress passed the ADA in 1990, the word “internet” was still years away from common usage. Organizations like the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) have developed guidelines for ensuring that web content is accessible to people with disabilities. The WAI’s most recent Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, known as WCAG 2.0, recommend making content compatible with specialized software that converts text to other formats, like large print, Braille, or spoken audio. They also recommend using measures that allow people to use a keyboard or other assistive devices, ensuring that webpage content has a consistent format and appearance, and avoiding a design “that is known to cause seizures.”
The Section 508 Amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794d, requires the federal government to ensure that its information technology, including websites, is accessible to people with disabilities. The extent to which private commercial websites are governed by the ADA has not been as clear. The U.S. Department of Justice has not issued regulations requiring web accessibility, but it maintains that the ADA applies to private commercial websites. The Gil opinion notes that several courts have required “a sufficient nexus to a physical place” in order to be subject to the ADA. Gil, opinion at 9.
Business lawyer Samuel C. Berger represents businesses, business owners, and entrepreneurs in New York City and Northern New Jersey. We offer packages of fixed-fee legal services, which cover a broad range of legal issues and enable us to meet our clients’ specific needs. Contact us online, at (201) 587-1500, or at (212) 380-8117 today to schedule a confidential consultation with an experienced and skilled business advocate.
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