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 location for it to qualify as a “place” of public accommodation? In the Texas case, a bridge player sued OKBridge, Inc., a company that operates a website for bridge players. The court ruled that because OKBridge provided its services online and not at a physical location, the company was not a “place” of public accommodation. Similarly, in the Florida case, a court ruled that “www.southwest.com” was not a place of public accommodation because the website did not have an actual physical location.
In the California case, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) sued Target for failing to make its website accessible to customers who are blind. The NFB said that Target is a place of public accommodation because it is a store with multiple physical locations. The NFB argued that, as a result, Target was required to make its services, including its online services, accessible to customers with disabilities. The court ruled that Target may be required to make its website services accessible, if the website provides information and services necessary for the full and equal enjoyment of goods and services offered in Target stores.
The cases in Texas, Florida, and California suggest that websites must be made accessible to the extent necessary for people with disabilities to have full and equal enjoyment of the same services provided at the physical locations of those places of public accommodation. Since these cases were decided by lower courts, any court may agree or disagree with these rulings, even other judges in Texas, Florida, and California.
The NAD advocates for Title III of the ADA to apply to all business websites, whether or not the company has an actual physical location open to the public. In other words, the NAD believes that companies doing business or providing services online should have the same responsibility to be accessible to people who are deaf or hard of hearing as companies doing business or providing services in a physical location.