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Citing Americans with Disabilities Act, Blind and Deaf Persons Sue Online Shopping Sites

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by Publius
Posted March 22, 2013, 7:38 AM

According to the Wall Street Journal:

Advocates for disabled Americans have declared that companies have a legal obligation to make their websites as accessible as their stores, and they've filed suits across the country to force them to install the digital version of wheelchair ramps and self-opening doors.

Their theory that the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act applies to the modern Internet has been dismissed by several courts. Still, the National Federation of the Blind and the National Association of the Deaf have won legal victories against companies such as Target Corp. and Netflix Inc. Both companies settled the cases after federal judges rejected arguments that their websites were beyond the scope of the ADA.

"It's what I call 'eat your spinach' litigation," said Daniel F. Goldstein, a Baltimore lawyer who represents the NFB. "The market share you gain is more than the costs of making your site accessible."

Several other companies have worked with the NFB to make their websites more accessible to people with disabilities, including eBay Inc., Monster.com, Travelocity and Ticketmaster.

Eric Goldman, a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law, said most courts have ruled that online spaces aren't covered by the ADA. "Congress never contemplated the Internet at the time, and if they had, they would have included it," he said.

But that could soon change. The U.S. Department of Justice is expected to issue new regulations on website accessibility later this year that could take a broad view of the ADA's jurisdiction over websites. A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment.

That could mean websites will be required to include spoken descriptions of photos and text boxes for the blind, as well as captions and transcriptions of multimedia features for the deaf, said Jared Smith, associate director of WebAIM, a nonprofit group that trains and evaluates companies on Web accessibility.

Mr. Smith also advises companies to ensure that people with motor disabilities can navigate websites without the use of a mouse, and to use plain language and a strong design to aid people with cognitive or intellectual disabilities.

Lawyers who represent companies in ADA cases say an expansive reading of the law could expose their clients to a rash of frivolous lawsuits. They also argue that companies face a considerable burden in ensuring their websites are compatible with the latest technologies for aiding the disabled, such as software that reads aloud text on the screen.

In March 2006, Engage: The Journal of the Federalist Society's Practice Groups, published an article by Karen Harned and Elizabeth A. Gaudio titled "The ADA Opening Doors for the Plaintiff ’s Bar: How Ambiguities in Title III Inhibit Access, Increase Litigation, and Hurt Business." You can read it here.

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