The Department of Justice (DOJ) has specifically stated in rulings that websites should be designed so they are accessible to individuals who have vision, hearing, and physical disabilities. There’s a growing body of case law where the DOJ required companies to provide an ADA compliant website and levied hefty penalties when sites failed to measure up.
“Streaming of video programming over the Internet—by defendant Netflix and other similar providers—has revolutionized the entertainment industry; it is fast becoming the dominant means of delivering movies, television shows, and other entertainment offerings to the American public. Persons who are deaf or hard of hearing should not be prevented from fully participating in this aspect of American life. Netflix’s denial of equal access to, and full enjoyment of, its “Watch Instantly” service violates the ADA.”-Assistant Attorney General, Thomas E. Perez.
(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.
Recent years have seen an uptick in federal lawsuits filed against businesses and governments, alleging that their website violates the ADA by being insufficiently accessible to people with disabilities. In 2017, there were at least 814 such lawsuits against organizations in a variety of industries, from banks and credit unions to restaurants and e-commerce websites. The defendants include small businesses as well as major corporations such as Nike, Burger King, and the Hershey Company.
However, full compliance with the ADA’s promise to provide an equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities to participate in and benefit from all aspects of the programs, services, and activities provided by State and local governments in today’s technologically advanced society will only occur if it is clear to public entities that their websites must be accessible.
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.