On the legal side, ambiguity in the law and the speed at which technology and dependence on the Internet has developed created an opportunity for litigation all over our nation. As these cases have moved through our system, the courts have been nearly split -- with the 1st, 3rd and 7th Circuits ruling that the ADA does apply to websites, while the 6th, 9th and 11th Circuits have ruled that it does not. These latter rulings have all been based on the interpretation that the ADA is focused on physical location and requires a nexus test. Other circuit courts in the United States have yet to rule on the topic.
Upon first recognizing this possible application of Title III of the ADA in 2003, the DOJ laid out a Voluntary Action Plan for government agencies and private entities, and later followed that up with a short list of recommendations in 2007. In 2010, the DOJ seemed to be picking up steam on this topic when they released a Notice of Advance Rulemaking -- stating that they were “considering revising the regulations implementing Title III of the ADA in order to establish requirements for making the goods, services...offered by public accommodations via the Internet, specifically at sites on the World Wide Web, accessible to individuals with disabilities.”
Because they only read text, screen readers and refreshable Braille displays cannot interpret photographs, charts, color-coded information, or other graphic elements on a webpage. For this reason, a photograph of a mayor on a city’s website is inaccessible to people who use these assistive technologies, and a blind person visiting the website would be unable to tell if the image is a photo, a logo, a map, a chart, artwork, a link to another page, or even a blank page.
It is worth noting that before the settlement, Netflix attempted to argue that, due to its role as a streaming video distributor, any legal action should pertain to the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA), which, at the time, did not call for closed captions on content that had not previously aired on US television. However, the court ruled that these two laws are not mutually exclusive and that Netflix was not protected from ADA prosecution because of compliance with the CVAA.
UPDATE: Since writing this post in August 2017, several important changes have taken place in the laws regarding ADA compliance for websites. On December 26, 2017, the Department of Justice announced that they have withdrawn the Obama-era Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking mentioned in this article which intended to require ADA website compliance. The DOJ’s withdrawal announcement stated, “The Department will continue to assess whether specific technical standards are necessary and appropriate to assist covered entities with complying with the ADA.”
The statement that “noncompliance with a voluntary technical standard for website accessibility does not necessarily indicate noncompliance with the ADA” is new and significant. It is a recognition that a website may be accessible and usable by the blind without being fully compliant with the privately developed Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 or 2.1. The statement confirms what some courts have said so far: That the operative legal question in a website accessibility lawsuit is not whether the website conforms with WCAG, but whether persons with disabilities are able to access to a public accommodation’s goods, services, and benefits through the website, or some alternative fashion.