United States Laws
Overview of the American with Disabilities Act (ADA)


The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), passed in 1990, is civil rights legislation governed by the Department of Justice. The goal of this law is to make sure that people with disabilities can have an equal opportunity to participate in programs, services, and activities. It is important to note that the ADA does not deal directly with the accessibility of the Internet. This may be due to the fact that the Internet was just emerging as a widespread tool around the same time as the passage of the ADA. There are, however, two major sections in the ADA that may apply to web accessibility. These are:

  • Title II, which states that communications with persons with disabilities must be "as effective as communications with others" [28 C.F.R. ss 35.160 (a)] and
  • Title III, which deals with public accommodation of people with disabilities.

Legal Proceedings

The following cases, hearings, and rulings are organized chronologically and used to discuss whether or not the ADA applies to the Internet. This is not a comprehensive list, but it does highlight some of the more prominent cases. It is interesting to note that, even though we have examples of cases and hearings we still do not have a definite answer on the question of how the ADA applies to the Internet. The apparent contradictions around different legal cases make it difficult to know how to interpret and apply the rulings. Nevertheless, it is clear that inaccessible Web sites have been the target of lawsuits in recent years, which may be reason enough to persuade some organizations to make their Web sites as accessible as possible.

Application of ADA to the Internet: A US Department of Justice Ruling

In September 1996, a constituent of Senator Tom Harkin wrote to him questioning the application of the ADA to his web site. Sen. Harkin wrote to the Department of Justice (DOJ) to have this question answered. Read the letters from the constituent, Sen. Harkin, and the DOJ response.

Tyler vs. City of Manhattan (857 F Supp 800 D.Kan. 1994)

In this case, a student with a disability filed a grievance with a university for their failure to provide the reasonable accommodations needed to participate equally in school. An Office of Civil Rights letter to the President of Cal State Los Angeles where the Tyler decision is interpreted and cited.

Hooks vs. OKBridge

This case took place in 1999 between Harold Hooks and OKBridge, an online bridge club, who terminated his membership allegedly for having a disability. This case was dismissed, but the legal document written by Bill Lann Lee, the Acting Assistant Attorney General who examined this case, discusses the applicability of the ADA to the Internet.

National Federation of the Blind vs. AOL

Another important application of the ADA to Web Accessibility came with the filing of a lawsuit by the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) against AOL based on the public accommodation requirements of Title III of the ADA. This is the NFB/AOL Accessibility Agreement.

The UC Davis and UC Berkeley Settlement

A class-action lawsuit filed against UC Davis and UC Berkeley resulted in a settlement where the universities agreed to improve services for hard of hearing and deaf students and to pay $1.1 million in lawyers' fees.

Oversight Hearing on the Applicability of the ADA to Private Internet Sites

On Feb. 9, 2000 an oversight hearing was held in Washington, D.C. titled: The Applicability of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to Private Internet Sites. This hearing was meant to determine whether or not the Internet should be excluded from protection under the ADA.

Robert Gumson vs. Southwest Airlines and Access Now vs. Southwest Airlines

This case focused on whether or not the Southwest Airlines web site would be considered a place of "public accommodation" under the ADA. This is the case and the judge's decision (PDF document).

The case was appealed to the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit and a decision was handed down on Sept. 24, 2004.

Martin vs. MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority)

In this case, 6 plaintiffs filed suit in Federal Court arguing that MARTA failed to "make information available to people with disabilities through accessible formats and technology".

Spitzer Agreement

In an August 19, 2004 press release titled, Spitzer Agreement to make web Sites Accessible to the Blind and Visually Impaired, New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer announced settlements with two major travel Web sites that will make the sites far more accessible to blind and visually disabled users. According to the press release, "Ramada.com and Priceline.com, have agreed to implement a variety of accessibility standards that will permit users of assistive technology, such as screen reader software, to more easily navigate these web sites."