The ADA defines a covered disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a history of having such an impairment, or being regarded as having such an impairment. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was charged with interpreting the 1990 law with regard to discrimination in employment. The EEOC developed regulations limiting an individual's impairment to one that "severely or significantly restricts" a major life activity. The ADAAA directed the EEOC to amend its regulations and replace "severely or significantly" with "substantially limits", a more lenient standard.
Access Now v. Southwest Airlines was a case where the District Court decided that the website of Southwest Airlines was not in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, because the ADA is concerned with things with a physical existence and thus cannot be applied to cyberspace. Judge Patricia A. Seitz found that the "virtual ticket counter" of the website was a virtual construct, and hence not a "public place of accommodation." As such, "To expand the ADA to cover 'virtual' spaces would be to create new rights without well-defined standards."
Your site would need to have a text only option, with all functionality accessible through a keyboard for visitors with mobility issues. Once you make these and other changes to meet ADA guidelines, your site would need to be tested by a website development company familiar with ADA compliance issues to be sure that visitors who use assistive technology such as screen readers are able to access your web content fully.
Without a crystal ball, it’s difficult to gauge where the Trump administration will direct the DOJ on ADA regulations in relation to websites moving forward, if they do at all. The administration has already emphasized a desire to move away from regulation and those with a vested interest in the application of the ADA to websites have taken that as a signal that the already thrice delayed process will continue to be pushed down the list of priorities.
Because the ADA does not specifically mention websites, it also does not outline standards for how organizations can make their websites accessible. However, the DOJ has frequently cited recommendations such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 as acceptable metrics for accessibility. WCAG 2.0 includes many different criteria at three different “success levels” of accessibility, ranging from high-contrast color schemes to closed captions for video content.
^ Esshaki, Tiffany (July 21, 2015). "Remembering the 'Capitol Crawl'". C&G News. Retrieved January 15, 2016. The event, known as the "Capitol Crawl", was an image that legislators couldn't ignore, Bauer said. She had fought since the 1960s to legally protect the rights of people with disabilities, and with that heroic display, she said, lawmakers simply couldn't go back to their constituents without action.
(emphasis added). The fact that public accommodations have “flexibility” in how to comply with the ADA’s effective communication requirement has been lost in the past eight years, even though DOJ made this point in its 2010 Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) for websites. In that document, DOJ stated that a 24/7 staffed telephone line could provide a compliant alternative to an accessible website. The few courts to have considered this argument in the context of an early motion to dismiss have recognized its legitimacy, but have allowed cases to move forward into discovery on this and other issues. There have been no decisions on the merits addressing the viability of having a 24/7 telephone option in lieu of an accessible website.
This past September marked the first time a judge ruled that the ADA applies even to businesses without a physical location. Scribd, an e-book subscription service is considered to provide "a place of public accommodation." Their services are not accessible to blind persons because they cannot be read with a screen reader. The judge reasoned, "Now that the Internet plays such a critical role in the personal and professional lives of Americans, excluding disabled persons from access to covered entities that use it as their principal means of reaching the public would defeat the purpose of this important civil rights legislation."
On Dec. 26, 2017, the DOJ withdrew the proposed rulemaking for Title II and Title III, effectively killing any forward progress on adoption (more on that here: https://www.law.com/dailybusinessreview/2018/03/01/website-operators-are-on-notice-recent-events-may-force-change/). While disappointing, this is not surprising, given the current administration's commitment to deregulation. That said, I fully expect the courts to continue to fill the gap and hold businesses accountable, so I would encourage you to take accessibility standards into account as you work up the governance for your enterprise intranet services. If it would be helpful for me to put you in touch with an attorney with experience in these matters, I'd be more than happy to do so. Feel free to shoot me an email anytime at [email protected] Best of luck!
This particular lawsuit amounted to nothing more than a shakedown for cash, as the current laws would make it difficult to win the suit in court (more about this later) but it prompted me to dive deeper into the issue of ADA compliance. Through my research, I discovered there are some new laws on the horizon that could make ADA compliance mandatory, which means web designers and digital marketers need to know how to prepare.