Legal Precedent for Web Accessibility
When the ADA was enacted in 1990, the Internet as we know it today—the ubiquitous infrastructure for information and commerce—did not exist. Today the Internet, most notably the sites of the Web, plays a critical role in the daily personal, professional, civic, and business life of Americans. Increasingly, private entities are providing goods and services to the public through websites that operate as places of public accommodation under title III of the ADA. Similarly, many public entities under title II are using websites to provide the public access to their programs, services, and activities. Many websites of public accommodations and governmental entities, however, render use by individuals with disabilities difficult or impossible due to barriers posed by websites designed without accessible features.
Being unable to access websites puts individuals at a great disadvantage in today´s society, which is driven by a dynamic electronic marketplace and unprecedented access to information. On the economic front, electronic commerce, or “e-commerce,” often offers consumers a wider selection and lower prices than traditional, “brick-and-mortar” storefronts, with the added convenience of not having to leave one´s home to obtain goods and services. For individuals with disabilities who experience barriers to their ability to travel or to leave their homes, the Internet may be their only way to access certain goods and services. Learn more about the Access Ready Ecommerce Initiative here.
Beyond goods and services, information available on the Internet has become a gateway to education. Schools at all levels are increasingly offering programs and classroom instruction through websites. Many colleges and universities offer degree programs online; some universities exist exclusively on the Internet. Even if they do not offer degree programs online, most colleges and universities today rely on websites and other Internet-related technologies in the application process for prospective students, for housing eligibility and on-campus living assignments, course registration, assignments and discussion groups, and for a wide variety of administrative and logistical functions in which students and staff must participate. Similarly, in the elementary- and secondary-school settings, communications via the Internet are increasingly becoming the way teachers and administrators communicate grades, assignments, and administrative matters to parents and students.
The Internet is also dramatically changing the way that governmental entities serve the public. Public entities are increasingly providing their constituents access to government services and programs through their websites. Through government websites, the public can obtain information or correspond with local officials without having to wait in line or be placed on hold. They can also pay fines, apply for benefits, renew State-issued identification, register to vote, file taxes, request copies of vital records, and complete numerous other everyday tasks. The availability of these services and information online not only makes life easier for the public, but also enables governmental entities to operate more efficiently and at a lower cost.
The Internet also is changing the way individuals socialize and seek entertainment. Social networks and other online meeting places provide a unique way for individuals to meet and fraternize. These networks allow individuals to meet others with similar interests and connect with friends, business colleagues, elected officials, and businesses. They also provide an effective networking opportunity for entrepreneurs, artists, and others seeking to put their skills and talents to use. Websites also bring a myriad of entertainment and information options for Internet users—from games and music to news and videos. With the Internet, individuals can find countless ways to entertain themselves without ever leaving home.
More and more, individuals are also turning to the Internet to obtain healthcare information. Individuals use the Internet to research diagnoses they have received or symptoms that they are experiencing. There are a myriad of websites that provide information about causes, risk factors, complications, test and diagnosis, treatment and drugs, prevention, and alternative therapies for just about any disease or illness. Moreover, healthcare and insurance providers are increasingly offering patients the ability to access their healthcare records electronically via websites. As use of the Internet to provide and obtain healthcare information increases, the inability of individuals with disabilities to also access this information can potentially have a significant adverse effect on their health
The ADA´s promise to provide an equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities to participate in and benefit from all aspects of American civic and economic life will be achieved in today´s technologically advanced society only if it is clear to State and local governments, businesses, educators, and other public accommodations that their websites must be accessible.
How People With Disabilities are effected by the inaccessible web
Millions of individuals in the United States have disabilities that affect their use of the Web. Many of these individuals use assistive technology to enable them to navigate websites or access information contained on those sites. For example, individuals who do not have use of their hands may use speech recognition software to navigate a website, while individuals who are blind may rely on a screen reader to convert the visual information on a website into speech. Many websites fail to incorporate or activate features that enable users with disabilities to access all the site´s information or elements. For instance, individuals who are deaf are unable to access information in Web videos and other multimedia presentations that do not have captions. Individuals with low vision may be unable to read websites that do not allow the font size or the color contrast of the site´s page to be modified. Individuals with limited manual dexterity who may use assistive technology that enables them to interact with websites cannot access sites that do not support keyboard alternatives for mouse commands. These same individuals, along with individuals with intellectual and vision disabilities, often encounter difficulty using portions of websites that require timed responses from users but do not give users the ability to indicate that they need more time to respond.
Individuals who are blind or have low vision often confront significant barriers to Web access. This is because many websites provide information visually without features that allow screen readers or other assistive technology to retrieve information on the site so it can be presented in an accessible manner. The most common barrier to website accessibility is an image or photograph without corresponding text describing the image. A screen reader or similar assistive technology cannot “read” an image, leaving individuals who are blind with no way of independently knowing what information the image conveys (e.g., a simple graphic or a link to another page). Similarly, complex websites often lack navigational headings or links that would facilitate navigation using a screen reader or may contain tables with header and row identifiers that display data, but fail to provide associated cells for each header and row so that the table information can be interpreted by a screen reader.
Online forms, which are an essential part of accessing goods and services on many websites, are often inaccessible to individuals with disabilities. For example, field elements on forms—the empty boxes that hold specific pieces of information, such as a last name or telephone number—that lack clear labels, and visual CAPTCHAs (“Completely Automated Public Turing Test To Tell Computers and Humans Apart”)—distorted text that must be inputted by a website user to verify that a Web submission is being completed by a human rather than a computer—make it difficult for persons using screen readers to make purchases, submit donations, and otherwise interact with a website. These barriers greatly impede the ability of individuals with disabilities to fully enjoy the goods, services, and programs offered by covered entities on the Web.
In most instances, removing these and other website barriers is neither difficult nor especially costly, and in most cases providing accessibility will not result in changes to the format or appearance of a site. The addition of invisible attributes known as alt (alternate) text or tags to an image will help keep an individual using a screen reader oriented and allow him or her to gain access to the information on the website. Associating form labels to form input fields and locating form labels adjacent to form input fields will allow an individual using a screen reader to access the information and form elements necessary to complete and submit a form on the website. Moreover, Web designers can easily add headings, which facilitate page navigation using a screen reader, to their Web pages. They can also add cues to ensure the proper functioning of keyboard commands and set up their programs to respond to assistive technology, such as voice recognition technology.
The Internet as it is known today did not exist when Congress enacted the ADA and, therefore, neither the ADA nor the regulations the Department of Justice promulgated under the ADA specifically address access to websites. But the statute´s broad and expansive nondiscrimination mandate reaches goods and services provided by covered entities on websites over the Internet. Title III of the ADA provides that “[n]o individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation by any person who owns, leases (or leases to), or operates a place of public accommodation.” 42 U.S.C. 12182(a). Title III of the ADA and its corresponding regulations define a “place of public accommodation” as a facility whose operations affect commerce and that falls within at least one of the following 12 categories:
(1) An inn, hotel, motel, or other place of lodging, except for an establishment located within a building that contains not more than five rooms for rent or hire and that is actually occupied by the proprietor of the establishment as the residence of the proprietor;
(2) A restaurant, bar, or other establishment serving food or drink;
(3) A motion picture house, theater, concert hall, stadium, or other place of exhibition or entertainment;
(4) An auditorium, convention center, lecture hall, or other place of public gathering;
(5) A bakery, grocery store, clothing store, hardware store, shopping center, or other sales or rental establishment;
(6) A laundromat, dry-cleaner, bank, barber shop, beauty shop, travel service, shoe repair service, funeral parlor, gas station, office of an accountant or lawyer, pharmacy, insurance office, professional office of a health care provider, hospital, or other service establishment;
(7) A terminal, depot, or other station used for specified public transportation;
(8) A museum, library, gallery, or other place of public display or collection;
(9) A park, zoo, amusement park, or other place of recreation;
(10) A nursery, elementary, secondary, undergraduate, or postgraduate private school, or other place of education;
(11) A day care center, senior citizen center, homeless shelter, food bank, adoption agency, or other social service center establishment; and
(12) A gymnasium, health spa, bowling alley, golf course, or other place of exercise or recreation.
42 U.S.C. 12181(7); 28 CFR36.104. Congress contemplated that the Department of Justice would apply the statute in a manner that evolved over time, and it delegated authority to the Attorney General to promulgate regulations to carry out the Act´s broad mandate. H.R. Rep. No. 101-485(II), 101st Cong., 2d Sess. 108 (1990); 42 U.S.C. 12186(b). Consistent with this approach, the Department of Justice stated in the preamble to the original 1991 ADA regulations that the regulations should be interpreted to keep pace with developing technologies. 28 CFR part 36, app. B.
Section 12182 of title III provides that no person “who owns, leases (or leases to), or operates a place of public accommodation” may discriminate “on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations any place of public accommodation.” 42 U.S.C. 12182(a) (emphasis added). Similarly, title II provides that qualified individuals with disabilities shall not be excluded from “participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs, or activities a public entity.” 42 U.S.C. 12132 (emphasis added). The plain language of these statutory provisions applies to discrimination in offering the goods and services “of” a place of public accommodation or the services, programs, and activities “of” a public entity, rather than being limited to those goods and services provided “at” or “in” a place of public accommodation or facility of a public entity. v. , 452 F. Supp. 2d 946, 953 (N.D. Cal. 2006) (finding in a website-access case that “[t]o limit the ADA to discrimination in the provision of services occurring on the premises of a public accommodation would contradict the plain language of the statute”); v. , 294 F.3d 1279 (11th Cir. 2002) (finding that discrimination did not have to occur on-site in order to violate the ADA); 37 F.3d 12 (concluding that title III is not limited to provision of goods and services provided in physical structures, but also covers access to goods and services offered by a place of public accommodation through other mediums, such as telephone or mail). v. , 227 F. Supp. 2d 1312 (S.D. Fla. 2002)(finding a website is only covered if it affects access to a physical place of public accommodation); v. , 198 F.3d 1104, 1114-16 (9th Cir. 2000) (requiring some connection between the goods or services complained of and an actual physical place); v., 145 F.3d 601, 612-13 (3d Cir. 1998) (finding no nexus between challenged insurance policy and services offered to the public from insurance office). Instead, the ADA mandate for “full and equal enjoyment” requires nondiscrimination by a place of public accommodation in the offering of its goods and services, including those offered via websites.
The Internet has been governed by a variety of voluntary standards or structures developed through nonprofit organizations using multinational collaborative efforts. For example, domain names are issued and administered through the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the Internet Society (ISOC) publishes computer security policies and procedures for sites, and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) develops a variety of technical standards and guidelines ranging from issues related to mobile devices and privacy to internationalization of technology. In the area of accessibility, the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the W3C has created the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
It has been the policy of the United States to encourage self-regulation with regard to the Internet wherever possible and to regulate only where self-regulation is insufficient and government involvement may be necessary.
Voluntary standards have generally proved to be sufficient where obvious business incentives align with discretionary governing standards as, for example, with respect to privacy and security standards designed to increase consumer confidence in e-commerce. There has not, however, been equal success in the area of accessibility. The WAI leadership has recognized this challenge and has stated that in order to improve and accelerate Web accessibility it is important to “communicat[e] the applicability of the ADA to the Web more clearly, with updated guidance.
Competitive market forces have not proven sufficient to provide individuals with disabilities access to telecommunications and information services. There is no doubt that the websites of state and local government entities are covered by title II of the ADA. 28 CFR 35.102 (providing that the title II regulation “applies to all services, programs, and activities provided or made available by public entities”). Similarly, there seems to be little debate that the websites of recipients of federal financial assistance are covered by section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The Department of Justice has affirmed the application of these statutes to websites in a technical assistance publication, and in numerous agreements with State and local governments and recipients of Federal financial assistance.
The Department of Justice has also repeatedly affirmed the application of title III to websites of public accommodations. The Department of Justice first made this position public in a 1996 letter from Assistant Attorney General Deval Patrick responding to an inquiry by Senator Tom Harkin regarding the accessibility of websites to individuals with visual disabilities. Letter from Deval L. Patrick, Assistant Attorney General, Civil Rights Division, Department of Justice, to Tom Harkin, U.S. Senator (Sept. 9, 1996), The letter has been widely cited as a statement of the Department´s position. The letter does not, however, state whether entities doing business exclusively on the Internet are covered by the ADA.
In 2000, the Department of Justice filed an amicus brief in the Fifth Circuit in , which involved a Web-only business. The Department´s brief explained that a business providing services solely over the Internet is subject to the ADA´s prohibitions on discrimination on the basis of disability. Brief of the United States as Amicus Curiae in Support of Appellant, 232 F.3d 208 (5th Cir. 2000) (No. 99-50891), 1999 WL 33806215, available at . In a 2002 amicus brief in the Eleventh Circuit in , the Department argued against a requirement, imposed outside of the Internet context by some Federal courts of appeals, that there be a nexus between a challenged activity and a private entity´s “brick-and-mortar” facility to obtain coverage under title III. Brief for the United States as Amicus Curiae in Support of Appellant, 294 F.3d 1279 (11th Cir. 2002) (No. 01-11197), 2001 WL 34094038. Although did not involve website access, the Department of Justice´s brief argued that title III applies to any activity or service offered by a public accommodation, on or off the premises.
The Department of Justice has been clear that the ADA applies to websites of private entities that meet the definition of “public accommodations.”