UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 551 September 7, 2010

Accessibility and the Law

:
How good UX can keep you out of court

Website accessibility is obviously an integral part of user experience; a negative user experience is certain to occur when a consumer cannot access a commercial website, which, in turn, almost always carries negative business consequences. To make matters worse, an inaccessible website may also expose the site owner and/or designer to legal liability.

Accessing the Internet as an Individual with a Disability

Since the Internet transitioned from a predominantly text-based to a graphics-based phenomenon, accessibility of websites has been an issue for individuals with disabilities, most notably those with vision or mobility impairments who cannot easily use standard computer equipment. The number of Americans with such disabilities (already in the millions) is growing each day as aging baby boomers—who have disposable income and are accustomed to spending that income online—develop these disabilities. Individuals with these disabilities rely on adaptive technologies, such as screen reading software, to provide them with feedback that helps them navigate through web pages, obtain information, purchase goods, and contract for services. As a result, website designers should observe some well documented, basic programming tenets when creating or updating webpages to allow users of adaptive technologies to access websites.

Indeed, a website created in accordance with "universal design" typically benefits both disabled and nondisabled users. For example, a website designed to be universally accessible is typically organized better than an inaccessible site, permitting better ease of use and a superior user experience. Further, simple programming techniques allow a universally accessible website to be as aesthetically pleasing as the designers' imaginations will permit. In other words, accessibility is not mutually exclusive of creativity.

Why Accessibility Is Important

There are several reasons it is important to proactively make a website accessible. First, an accessible website expands a business's market to include individuals with disabilities who use the Internet to shop and do research in the same way nondisabled individuals do. In fact, most disability communities share amongst each other which sites to use because they are accessible and which to avoid because they are not. Second, retroactively correcting years' worth of inaccessible programming consumes vastly more financial and programming resources than taking simple steps to make a website accessible when it is initially designed or substantially updated. Third, an accessible site avoids exposure to potential lawsuits.

The Americans with Disabilities Act and the Internet

The principal law pertaining to accessibility of commercial websites is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. Title III of the ADA prohibits discrimination against an individual "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…." Discrimination includes denial of participation as well as provision of separate, but unequal, goods or services. "Public accommodation" is defined to include operations that "affect commerce;" the law provides 12 general categories of covered businesses such as hotels, restaurants, places of entertainment, sales and rental establishments, service establishments, places of recreation, and places of education. The law also requires affirmative "reasonable modifications" of "policies, practices, and procedures" to make them equally accessible.

The United States Supreme Court has yet to specifically rule that Title III requires private companies to make their websites accessible, but there has been significant guidance from the lower federal courts and the United States Department of Justice (DOJ), which enforces the ADA, that Title III does apply to commercial websites. Many major businesses, including AOL, Amazon, and Target, have relied on this guidance in deciding to make their websites accessible pursuant to Title III.

One of the landmark cases on this issue is Carparts Distribution Center, Inc. v. Automotive Wholesaler's Ass'n of New England, Inc., 37 F.3d 12 (1st Cir. 1994). Although Carparts does not actually concern the Internet, it is important because it establishes that "public accommodation" as defined in Title III is not limited to physical structures. Another federal appeals court later adopted the logical foundation laid by the Carparts decision and added that the purpose of Title III

is that the owner or operator of a… Web site, or other facility (whether in physical space or in electronic space) that is open to the public cannot exclude disabled persons from entering the facility and, once in, from using the facility in the same way that the nondisabled do.
Doe v. Mutual of Omaha Ins. Co., 179 F.3d 557, 559 (7th Cir. 1999) (citation omitted).

Like Carparts, however, Doe did not specifically involve a claim regarding accessibility of a website.

The Target Case

Subsequent litigation, however, leaves little question that Title III requires commercial websites to be accessible. The key legal decision in this regard is National Federation of the Blind v. Target Corp., 452 F. Supp. 2d 946 (N.D. Cal. 2006). In that case, the plaintiffs claimed that Target's website, target.com, which offered goods for sale and provided information regarding services offered at brick-and-mortar Target stores, was inaccessible and thus in violation of the ADA and California state law. Target moved to dismiss the claim on the grounds that the laws did not apply to the website. The court rejected Target's argument and focused on the plain language of the ADA in ruling that Target's brick-and-mortar stores are "public accommodations" under the definition set forth in Title III.

The court then determined that target.com was a "service" of Target's stores in light of the transactional and informational connections between the two. It was just a matter of finishing the syllogism that, as a service of a public accommodation, Target.com was subject to Title III. The ruling in Target was based on the "nexus" between the website and the brick-and-mortar stores. Another court in an earlier case, Access Now v. Southwest Airlines, 227 F. Supp. 2d 1312 (S.D. Fla. 2002), reached a different conclusion than the Target court because the website at issue was not related to a physical place of business. This factor, however, may no longer be part of the analysis after the DOJ issues proposed regulations regarding the ADA's applicability to the Internet.

Upcoming Regulations and the Probable Expansion of the Target Ruling

In conjunction with the 20th anniversary of the ADA, the DOJ has clearly expressed that it regards commercial websites as being covered by the ADA. On April 22, 2010, Samuel R. Bagenstos, the Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, testified before a House subcommittee that

[t]he Department of Justice has long taken the position that… websites of private entities that are public accommodations are covered by the ADA. In other words, the websites of entities covered by… Title III of the [ADA] are required by law [to be] fully accessible to individuals with disabilities.
Emerging Technologies and the Rights of Individuals with Disabilities: Hearing Before the Subcomm. on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties of the H. Comm. on the Judiciary, 111th Cong. 5 (2010).

Bagenstos went on to describe the DOJ's two "friend of the court" briefs filed in federal appeals courts where the Department expressed the position that "a business providing services solely over the internet is subject to the ADA's prohibitions on discrimination on the basis of disability." Id. at 6. Then, in July, the DOJ released a notice that it was considering regulations on the subject of commercial websites' compliance with the ADA. Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability; Accessibility of Web Information and Services of State and Local Government Entities and Public Accommodations, 75 Fed. Reg. 43460 (proposed July 26, 2010). The notice reiterated the position previously stated by Bagenstos and declared that "the Department is focused on the goods and services of public accommodations that operate exclusively or through some type of presence on the Web—whether hosting their own Web site or participating in a host's Web site…" Id. at 43465 (emphasis added). This clearly indicates that the DOJ is considering an expansion of the Target and Access Now decisions to require public accommodations that do not have a brick-and-mortar presence to make their websites accessible.

Other Laws and Designer Liability

In addition to the ADA are state laws, such as California's Unruh Civil Rights Act and Disabled Persons Act, which are at least co-extensive with the ADA in terms of scope and permit damage awards. These monetary damage awards are even more incentive for a business to make their websites accessible than the standard consequence under Title III of a court compelling a website to be made accessible. The Unruh Civil Rights Act also makes it illegal to aid or abet discriminatory activity, which implicates the actions of website designers as well as website owners. Further, these state laws could very well be interpreted to extend even further than the ADA with respect to accessibility of commercial websites, particularly in the context of online-only businesses.

What Does This All Mean?

In sum, it is clear that Title III applies to commercial websites and there are increasing indications that the DOJ intends to make no distinction between businesses with brick-and-mortar locations and those that operate solely online. In addition to the legal considerations, there are sound business reasons to design accessible websites, including a better user experience for all consumers, avoiding higher costs of retroactive compliance with the law, and increased revenues by capitalizing on an expanded market. Who ever said doing the right thing had to be difficult?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

User Profile

Gregory P. Care is an attorney at the law firm Brown, Goldstein & Levy, LLP in Baltimore, Maryland where his practice includes disability rights. Brown, Goldstein & Levy was one of several firms that represented the plaintiffs in the National Federation of the Blind v. Target Corp. class action lawsuit that resulted in a settlement to make Target.com accessible. 

Add new comment

Comments

35
43

How does the law affect things like audio and video content where captioning or transcription isn't made available to people who have a hearing loss, especially when the content is premium content (i.e. paid)?

E.g. Membership sites that offer paid training via video content who don't offer captioning. Are they breaking the law?

34
37

What are the implications for the mobile sphere, if any?

37
37

What if you're using a 3rd party CMS system or framework - let's just say SharePoint (not a CMS, per se) or ASP.NET - where the code is server generated and you end up with something like:

  1. <input type="button" onclick="javascript:doLogin();" value="Login">
  2. <input type="radio" name="choice" value="wow">Wow
  3. <a href="javascript:showPrivacy();">Privacy</a>

Where the problem with 1 and 3 are they require JavaScript and #2 has no corresponding label. If the tools you're using are flawed in regards to accessibility, where does that leave you? Also, can you comment on any particular sites/cases you've been involved with in regards to costs to retrofit and support accessibilty?

41
41

Darrell:

You raise some interesting points, but I think that the fundamental question of whether a website is accessible can be answered by some pretty simple steps. Automated tools keyed to accessibility standards are a helpful starting point, but usability testing performed by live testers breathes life into legal and other standards and brings into sharp relief whether a site is accessible. At Brown, Goldstein & Levy, we approach the question this way on behalf of our blind and visually-impaired clients: can a blind person perform the same transactions and obtain the same information as a sighted person with a substantially equivalent ease of use? In other words, if it is taking an average blind person 20 minutes to buy the same sweater I (as a sighted person) just bought in 3 minutes, then there is a problem. That disparity in time is not meant to signify any threshold for us, but is merely an illustrative example of the concept.

And, as to the question about a "degrading" webpage, I have to stress the importance of proper maintenance. A coding/design manual and proper training of designers is a critical aspect of making and keeping a site accessible. A website that started out as accessible, but becomes inaccessible over time is violative of the law all the same.

36
40

Lainey:

Thanks, as always, for your great work on accessibility. I agree that it is always preferrable to negotiate a settlement with websites prior to litigation. Brown, Goldstein & Levy always strives for an amicable resolution that benefits everyone without the need to file a lawsuit. We have settled many website accessibility disputes this way, including Amazon.com and AOL. That said, there are many website designers and owners who are not as willing to participate in discussions without litigation. For instance, it took the initial stages of litigation to bring Target to the negotiating table.

In sum, we much prefer to resolve disputes about accessibility in the setting of negotiated settlements, but we recognize that sometimes litigation is what is necessary.

30
40

Kerry,

You are quite right; I agree that it is the morally and socially "right thing" to do in addition to the other reasons I gave. I suppose I take that as a predicate to this discussion and explore the practical reasons in the context of how businesses generally approach accessibility. My practice has confirmed, time and again, that businesses are primarily motivated to make their websites accessible because of the factors I laid out in the article. The desire to do the "right thing" is typically a factor, but usually not enough of one by itself to prompt a commitment to accessible design.

35
38

You ask "Why Accessibility Is Important".

The answer is simple: it's the decent thing to do.

37
42

We should all be sensative to disabled persons' needs in all areas of life, but the law itself seems so gray. What is the baseline for validating what "full and equal enjoyment" means? Of course, this is what the mentioned court cases (and all those to follow, it seems) will be about.

Reading WCAG and other website standards for defining accessibility demonstrates the difficulty in creating a pigeonhole for disabled persons. Not only are there different disabilities, but different levels of disabilities. Even looking at standard users where there are different computers running different browsers, most sites are not created to provide "full and equal enjoyment" to all those browser variations, but instead "degrade gracefully". Would those be in violation of "full and equal enjoyment" from an accessibility perspective?

There is something to be said about laws and standards, but when the laws attempt to cover everything troubles begin. If business were savvy, they wouldn't need airtight laws because they would cater to website users of all abilities. As mentioned in the article, a negative user experience can translate to lower profits.

35
40

Thanks for this article Greg. Readers may also want to know about the large commercial sites that have become accessible as a result of Structured Negotiations - a non-litigation approach to solving disability technology issues. Entities committing to accessibility as a result of that process include Major League Baseball, Bank of America, and CVS. To read web accessibility press releases issued by these entities and more, visit http://bit.ly/bhzjHB