United States Laws
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 which was just emerging as a widespread technology around the same time as the passage of the ADA.
There are three major sections or titles in the ADA:
- Title I, which prohibits discrimination in employment. The inaccessibility of systems or services required to obtain and maintain employment may be considered discriminatory under this Title.
- Title II, which covers public entities, such as governmental and public education institution. It states that communications with persons with disabilities must be "as effective as communications with others".
- Title III, which deals with non-discrimination toward people with disabilities in "places of public accommodation".
The following cases, hearings, and rulings are organized chronologically and used to discuss whether or not the ADA applies to web sites. This is not a comprehensive list, but it does highlight some of the more prominent cases. It is important to note that, even though we have examples of cases and hearings, the ADA itself does not yet define technical requirements for web accessibility (though WCAG 2.0 and, more recently, WCAG 2.1 are being required in legal settlements and actions). There remains occasional contradictions in different legal cases making it difficult to know how to interpret and apply all the rulings. Nevertheless, it is clear that inaccessible web sites have been the target of ADA complaints and lawsuits in recent years.
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. The DOJ indicated their belief that the web is a covered entity under the ADA.
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 in 1999 based on the public accommodation requirements of Title III of the ADA. AOL settled the lawsuit in 2000 and agreed to make its content accessible.
Oversight Hearing on the Applicability of the ADA to Private Internet Sites
On February 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.
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". The district court ruled in 2002 that MARTA had violated the ADA and granted the plaintiffs an injunction requiring MARTA to improve service to the disabled.
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."
National Federation of the Blind v. Target Corporation
This case, filed in February 2006 and eventually settled in August 2008, signaled that Title III of the ADA would extend to websites, not merely physical locations. Though no official ruling on the issue was reached, Target's decision to accept a settlement which included a substantial commitment to improving the accessibility of their website – specifically with regards to blind users – began a shift by similar businesses towards accessible design in their websites.
Guillermo Robles vs. Domino's Pizza
In this case, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that Title III of the ADA extended to websites and mobile applications that are connected to a physical place of business. This decision set a legal precedent that requires physical businesses that make use of websites and apps to ensure that those websites and apps are accessible. The Ninth Circuit declined to rule on websites and mobile applications that are not connected to a physical place of business. Domino's Pizza attempted to appeal the case to the Supreme Court; however, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case. The Ninth Circuit's Opinion was filed on January 15, 2019.
Gil v. Winn-Dixie
A blind patron, Juan Carlos Gil, filed suit in 2017 against his grocery store claiming they discriminated against him because of his disability and had "not provided full and equal enjoyment of services, facilities, privileges, advantages and accommodations provided by and through its website." Winn-Dixie argued that their website was not a place of public accommodation and therefore they did not need to provide an accommodation. In June of 2017 a District Court in Florida delivered a judgement for the plaintiff which would require Winn-Dixie to make their website conform to WCAG 2.0, establish a web accessibility policy, and provide training for its employees. Winn-Dixie appealed the verdict. On April 7, 2021, the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled that the Winn-Dixie grocery chain's inaccessible website did not, in fact, constitute a violation of Title III of the ADA. The ruling acknowledged the fact that the website was not accessible to the plaintiff, a screen reader user, but asserted that, as the website was only being used to schedule a pickup from the store's pharmacy, which would be paid for in person, rather than to actually purchase any products, that it did not present a barrier to accessing the store's services.
This ruling is in contrast to the "Nexus Doctrine" commonly upheld by other circuit courts and exemplified in the "Guillermo Robles vs. Domino's Pizza" case described earlier on this page. This doctrine takes the view that websites and mobile applications are connected to the physical location of the business and must be held to the same standards of accessibility. This ruling currently holds only in the states of Georgia, Florida, and Alabama; the states served by the Eleventh Circuit. Therefore, its impact is limited, as there are very few organizations that wish to make a website only for those three states. If the doctrine embraced by this ruling becomes popular elsewhere, however, it would represent a significant reduction in the scope of the ADA, and a significant reduction in the legal standards for web accessibility.
As of April 15, 2021, the plaintiff has filed a Petition for Rehearing en banc, which, if accepted, could lead to the ruling in this case being overturned.
While the ADA does not yet define technical standards that define web accessibility or discrimination based on web inaccessibility, and while there have been court rulings both in favor of and opposed to web sites and mobile applications being covered by the ADA, the preponderance of litigation and complaints increasingly show that there is liability under the ADA for maintaining inaccessible web content and that WCAG 2 is the predominant mechanism for measuring potential discrimination.
In 2021, a report by UseableNet predicted that there will be more than 4,000 lawsuits on digital inaccessibility (i.e., websites, apps, and digital videos) in 2021 if the current mid-year data holds. This may be reason enough to persuade some organizations to make their web sites accessible to current professional standards now. Recent lawsuits and complaints have referenced WCAG 2.1 A/AA as the technical standard by which potential discrimination is measured.