Case closed: Disabled access does not apply to cyberspace...for now

A federal judge in Miami has dismissed a suit that sought to apply the Americans with Disabilities Act's anti-discrimination provisions to business web sites. U.S. District Judge Patricia A. Seitz dismissed the lawsuit filed by Access Now that alleged that Southwest Airlines' website violated the ADA because it was not accessible to the blind.

Access Now, a Florida nonprofit group that advocates accessibility for the handicapped, sued Southwest in U.S. District Court in June. The suit claimed that Southwest's site excluded the blind in violation of the ADA. Access Now filed suit to do two things; to get Southwest to make its site compatible with readers for the blind, and to establish that business sites need to be accessible to the blind.

The crux of this suit was whether the right defined within ADA prohibiting discrimination in places of public accommodation extends to "cyberspace". Federal Judge Patricia Seitz ruled that a Web site is not a place of public accommodation. "[T]o fall within the scope of the ADA as presently drafted, a public accommodation must be a physical, concrete structure," she wrote. Her ruling states that web sites are not a "place of public accommodation" as defined in the ADA.

The ADA was signed into law in 1990, years before the Web became a significant tool for E-business. ADA defines 12 specific types of public accommodations, all of which are physical facilities. Because of this, Judge Seitz wrote, "courts must follow the law as written and wait for Congress to adopt or revise legislatively-defined standards that apply to those rights. Here, to fall within the scope of the ADA as presently drafted, a public accommodation must be a physical, concrete structure. To expand the ADA to cover 'virtual' spaces would be to create new rights without well-defined standards."

The ruling also argues that there are no well-defined, generally accepted standards for makes sites accessible. While the World Wide Web Consortium has created Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, Judge Seitz noted that the guidelines were dated, failed to provide specific information about browser support, and were not a generally accepted authority on accessibility guidelines.

In addition, the ruling scolds Southwest and the plaintiffs for not cooperating to find a mutually acceptable solution. Judge Seitz writes that it is unfortunate that Access Now did not proactively discuss with Southwest ways to improve the accessibility of the site. She also takes Southwest to task, writing "It is especially surprising that Southwest, a company which prides itself on its customer relations, has not voluntarily seized the opportunity to employ all available technologies to expand accessibility to its Web site."

For many E-businesses, this ruling may remove any sense of urgency about making web sites accessible. The ruling states clearly that the ADA doesn't apply to the Web. It also questions whether there is any standard for what an accessible site is, and suggests that it's up to Congress to decide.

Even though this case has been dismissed, it's clear that more suits are coming. Access Now has already filed suit against American Airlines, claiming their site violates the ADA. Many sites are making changes to improve their accessibility in order to avoid these sort of suits. While it may take years for the law to catch up with the web, companies can use the W3C guidelines now to make it easier for the handicapped to use their sites.

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