Court rules disability discrimination law does not apply to websites

Websites are an integral part of the business of providing professional services. Often, architecture firms exhibit graphic creativity and challenge site visitors to spend time exploring and learning from the site. Engineering firms typically display accomplishments, document client satisfaction, and promote client interaction through their website’s interface. However, websites can create problems for businesses ranging from violations of intellectual property rights to defamation or discrimination.

One of the challenges that commercial entities face is whether their website is equally accessible to those with sight or hearing deficiencies. Lawsuits over website accessibility are often based on if they violate disability discrimination laws as “places of public accommodation.”

In a decision published this month, the federal appeals court for the circuit with jurisdiction over Alabama, Florida, and Georgia (Eleventh Circuit) held in a decision on disability discrimination under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that a website is not a “place of public accommodation,” and an inaccessible website is not necessarily equal to the denial of goods or services. Although the case involved a grocery store chain, the ruling will have an impact on all websites that offer information or services to the public in some way.

The ruling in the Eleventh Circuit joins several other circuits in holding that a website is not a “place of public accommodation” under Title III. However, this decision went further by expressly holding that under the facts of the case, an inaccessible website is not necessarily tantamount to the denial of goods or services because the website lacked an auxiliary aid that would enable content to be read aloud by screen-reader technology. The court explained that the statutory definition of “public accommodation” clearly included only physical locations and that a website is not a place of public accommodation because it is not one of the 12 enumerated types of public accommodations listed in the statute.

The court ruled that the ADA requires disabled patrons be given equal access to goods and services such as those offered through a website, but not necessarily in the identical way as non-disabled patrons. The court said that the statutory requirement to provide auxiliary aids and services permits equivalent but not identical access, stating this was true even if non-disabled patrons could have more convenient access through the website.

Other federal courts have used a “nexus standard” and have held that even though websites are not directly included in the definition of places of public accommodation, they can be treated as part of the physical place of public accommodation if there is a strong “nexus” between the website’s services and those provided by the company’s physical facility. The Eleventh Circuit also underscored the utility of having an accessibility statement providing an alternative means of obtaining information contained on a website or services promoted by the website. The court endorsed the idea that the ADA requires equal access, not necessarily access in the manner preferred by any particular patron.

Despite the Eleventh Circuit’s decision, it remains to be seen whether other circuits will follow or it will be followed with respect to state disability laws. Businesses must carefully scrutinize the interplay between federal and state disability laws to determine the correct course for making websites accessible to those with sight or hearing deficiencies.

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