Americans With Disabilities Act: For The Web?

    September 11, 2006

It’s a huge question: Should the Americans with Disabilities Act apply to online businesses as much as it should to brick-and-mortar stores?

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California seems to think so, as Target recently found out. The Court ruled Target could be sued if their website is inaccessible to the blind, and that the National Federation of the Blind could go forward with its lawsuit.

I don’t know all the inctricacies of the ADA law, but I’m sure that if you applied the same standards to Target’s website that you do to Target stores, it’d be very hard to justify a lawsuit. When you go to a retail store, what is done to satisfy the blind or disabled? All I see are handicapped parking spots, wheelchair ramps, and, occasionally, Braille in a place or two. doesn’t need to worry about parking or ramps, and certainly its text is more readable by screen readers than whatever they have in the stores, so what more do they have to do?

The fact is, there are no accessibility “standards” online, at least none made by a legislative body. Nothing made the W3C (or whoever) should be binding in a court of law, and NFoB is going to have a hard time proving that. The court was right to let the lawsuit go forward, but the suit is going to be a step backwards for online accessibility, because they are going to lose. With a legal precedent saying that ALT tags are not absolutely necessary, it is only likely that there will be less accessibility, not more.

The real solution to this issue is not to sue Target (a random target if there ever was one), but to lobby Congress to do something about it. While Congress’s authority over the internet is suspect, they will likely not face too much resistance, and could pass a law mandating basic accessibility. Even better, Congress could fund work into putting better accessibility tools in the hands of the blind, so that it won’t just be up to ALT tags to help out those who can’t see what is on the screen. Lawsuits are rarely the answer, and, in this case, unlikely to even have a minimum amount of success.

(via Digg)

UPDATE: Turns out a federal judge, also in a U.S. District Court, ruled four years ago that the ADA only applies to physical spaces, not the Internet. Whoops. Usually, when two federal judges issue contradicting rulings, there’s a half-decent shot it will head the Supreme Court’s way. Either way, that makes this a really bad ruling.

In the first case of its kind, U.S. District Judge Patricia Seitz said the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies only to physical spaces, such as restaurants and movie theaters, and not to the Internet.

“To expand the ADA to cover virtual’ spaces would be to create new rights without well-defined standards,” Seitz wrote in a 12-page opinion dismissing the case. “The plain and unambiguous language of the statute and relevant regulations does not include Internet Web sites.”

Nathan Weinberg writes the popular InsideGoogle blog, offering the latest news and insights about Google and search engines.

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