The landscape of disabled access litigation related to online services has significantly changed and expanded over the past decade. Initially, the internet was an area of little concern as courts uniformly held that the ADA applied to "brick and mortar" facilities, not to cyberspace. This has changed and online accessibility is presently, and will continue to be, an area of significant investigation and litigation.
The ADA has been criticized on the grounds that it decreases the employment rate for people with disabilities and raises the cost of doing business for employers, in large part due to the additional legal risks, which employers avoid by quietly avoiding hiring people with disabilities. Some researchers believe that the law has been ineffectual. Between 1991 (after the enactment of the ADA) and 1995, the employment rate of men with disabilities dropped by 7.8% regardless of age, educational level, or type of disability, with the most affected being young, less-educated and mentally disabled men. Despite the many criticisms, a causal link between the ADA and declining disabled employment over much of the 1990s has not been definitively identified.
Courts have come to different conclusions regarding whether Title III’s coverage is limited to physical spaces and whether a company’s website requires a nexus to a physical location to be subject to Title III’s protections. This uncertainty and lack of clarity regarding Title III’s scope is problematic for businesses that want to comply with Title III’s requirements, but do not necessarily want to foot the hefty bill for updating their websites consistent with the “gold standard” stated in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (“WCAG”) established by the World Wide Web Consortium (“W3C”) with the state of the law in flux.
On September 25, 2008, President George W. Bush signed the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA) into law. The amendment broadened the definition of "disability", thereby extending the ADA's protections to a greater number of people. The ADAAA also added to the ADA examples of "major life activities" including, but not limited to, "caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working" as well as the operation of several specified major bodily functions. The act overturned a 1999 US Supreme Court case that held that an employee was not disabled if the impairment could be corrected by mitigating measures; it specifically provides that such impairment must be determined without considering such ameliorative measures. It also overturned the court restriction that an impairment which substantially limits one major life activity must also limit others to be considered a disability. In 2008, the United States House Committee on Education and Labor stated that the amendment "makes it absolutely clear that the ADA is intended to provide broad coverage to protect anyone who faces discrimination on the basis of disability." Thus the ADAAA led to broader coverage of impaired employees.
^ 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.
On September 25, 2018, Assistant Attorney General Stephen E. Boyd, sent a letter in response to a June 20, 2018 letter from a bi-partisan group of 103 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, requesting clarity on “unresolved questions about the applicability of the ADA to websites” which have “created a liability hazard that directly affects businesses in our states….” The DoJ responded:
Any business that is considered a “place of public accommodation” is required to provide equal access to services under the nondiscrimination requirements of Title III of ADA. When you look at the guidelines closely, this includes hotels, entertainment venues, legal and accounting firms, retail stores, and virtually every business that is not a private club, including businesses that exist solely on the web.
“Any business that is considered a “place of public accommodation” is required to provide equal access to services under the nondiscrimination requirements of Title III of ADA. When you look at the guidelines closely, this includes hotels, entertainment venues, legal and accounting firms, retail stores, and virtually every business that is not a private club, including businesses that exist solely on the web.” (Read full article.)
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ADA website compliance is a hot topic among any business that has a website (and in today’s world, that really is 99% of them). You’ve likely seen news stories about companies that are getting sued or settling out of court for having a website that doesn’t comply with the American Disabilities Act and you’re also probably wondering if this affects you or your business.