Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires “places of public accommodation” (most businesses; for-profit and non-profit) to provide people with disabilities equal access to and an equal opportunity to participate in and benefit from their services. Places of public accommodation include hotels, stores, banks, movie theaters, daycare centers, private schools, and professional offices, such as doctors and lawyers. Places of public accommodation must provide auxiliary aids or services (such as captioning) when necessary to communicate effectively with people who are deaf or hard of hearing, unless it would be an undue burden (a significant difficulty or expense). That much of the law is clear. Much less clear is whether Title III of the ADA also covers business websites.
In a 1996 letter, the U.S. Department of Justice said Title III of the ADA requires “covered entities” (places of public accommodation) that “use the Internet for communications regarding their programs, goods, or services” to “offer those communications through accessible means as well.” More recently, the Department of Justice entered into a settlement agreement with Sylvan Learning Centers, which provides tutoring services in person and online through the Internet. Sylvan Learning Centers had refused to provide auxiliary aids for a prospective deaf student. As part of the settlement agreement, Sylvan Learning Centers agreed to make its services accessible to people who are deaf or hard of hearing. In addition to settlement agreements, the Department of Justice has filed briefs arguing that websites are places of public accommodation.
Unfortunately, courts are not required to follow Department of Justice letters, settlement agreements, or briefs. Lawsuits filed in Texas, Florida, and California sought to make websites accessible to people with disabilities. These lawsuits raised an important legal issue: Must a business have an actual physical locat