Virtual "Access" Online

Lawmakers designed the ADA to eliminate discrimination against people with disabilities in five key areas:

  • Public accommodations
  • Employment
  • Government facilities and services
  • Telecommunications
  • Transportation

It is in that first area – public accommodations – that the ADA was initially most evident.

Ramps, lifts, electronic door openers, and restrooms roomy enough for people who use wheelchairs are just a few of the accommodations the legislation required to boost the accessibility of public spaces.

Removing physical barriers helps people with mobility challenges be out and about.

Our world has become a more “virtual” in the last 25 years. People with disabilities need equal access to online communications to be in sync with the world.

Unfortunately, people – especially those with visual or fine motor disabilities - can bemoan the fact that there are no mandated “curb cuts” in the digital “cloud.”

The World Wide Web had not yet revolutionized communications when ADA became the law of the land.

In 1990, few people had email accounts. Online banking was unimaginable. Hand-held communication devices (i.e. mobile phones) were part of the Star Trek universe, but not daily lives of people with no commission in Starfleet Command.

That’s why recent legal challenges lodged under the public accommodations provision of the ADA hover over virtual spaces and services.

The highest profile cases involve Netflix, a popular video entertainment service. Plaintiffs claimed in two unrelated lawsuits in 2012 that Netflix’s online streaming library was in violation of the ADA because no video subtitles were provided.

Complexity of the issue was underscored by the fact that outcomes in two federal district courts were different, although the cases themselves were similar.

One court ruled that the phrase “a place of public accommodation” in the ADA applied only to places with a physical presence.

The other court interpreted the phrase more broadly to include websites, saying they operate like modern-day stores.

The latter interpretation sets an important precedent. Owners of websites that are not designed to be accessible may be sued for failing to take affirmative actions and violating the ADA.

Website accessibility becomes a greater concern every year because:

  • More communication and business is being conducted online.
  • Websites are becoming more sophisticated, graphics-laden and interactive and assistive technologies can’t instantaneously transfer all elements to an alternate format.
  • America is aging and the number of people living with chronic and age-related disabilities is growing.

The courts may have sent an ambiguous message, but Netflix itself is making strides toward greater accessibility.

Netflix has added closed captioning for much of its online streaming video library. It is also adding audio description - a narration track that describes what is happening on-screen – on its most popular original programming.

Let’s hope that the physical accommodations mandated by the ADA to increase accessibility are embraced as a template for removing virtual barriers that people with disabilities often encounter when using the Internet.