August 20, 2004
Yesterday, Elliott Spitzer, Attorney General for the State of New York, announced a settlement where Ramada.com and Priceline.com have agreed to make their websites accessible to the blind. The settlement came because
[t]he Attorney General opined that the Americans With Disabilities Act requires that private web sites be accessible to blind and visually impaired Internet users. The ADA generally dictates that all “places of public accommodation” and all “goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations” of places of public accommodation, must be made accessible to disabled citizens, absent undue hardship. New York law provides similar civil rights protections.
Priceline and Ramada will reimburse the state for its costs as well as make necessary changes to their sites. Priceline has reportedly already begun work to make its website more accessible, and, according to the Washington Post sought to reassure investors that the settlement is not a blow to the company’s bottom line.
[Priceline's Brian] Ek said the firm encourages other firms to do the same. He said the firm isn’t releasing the cost of making the entire site accessible for the visually disabled, but said it won’t be enough to reduce earnings.
Our Analysis of The Settlement
This settlement is particularly interesting in light of a previous ruling that determined the opposite. That case (02-21734-C1V – Access Now/Gumson vs. Southwest Airlines) turned on the fact that the web does not occupy physical space; the judge believed Congress’s specificity in defining public accommodations limited the act to physical space. That Spitzer believed otherwise is precedent setting. As the businesses in question clearly engaged in commercial operations, they can be defined as public accommodations. The Internet was not contemplated when the ADA was written, but in 2000, a Congressional hearing concluded:
…the ADA does apply to the Internet, and . . . [due to] the substantial First Amendment implications of an application of the ADA to the Internet, the development of a legislative record on these issues now would likely prove valuable to all interested parties.
We expect this settlement will lead to increased lawsuits, with the ultimate result being the amendment of the ADA to include websites under the umbrella of public accommodations. At that point, it will be become more expensive for businesses to try to achieve compliance as they’ll be facing increased penalties.
Businesses who launch new websites subsequent to this ruling will likely be targets for lawsuits given that precedent has been set. Ensuring WCAG compliance prior to launch will not only save money, but will reduce legal bills.
Spitzer’s settlement is also interesting because of what it doesn’t cover. Perhaps because the lawsuit was brought on behalf of only one disabled group, the settlement and website fixes are focused solely on increasing accessibility for blind and low-vision users. It is unclear as to whether Spitzer purposely limited the scope of the settlement or he was unaware of the wide range of other disabilities the accessibility guidelines address. It will be interesting to see how the two sites in question approach retrofitting their websites, and whether or not they address a broad range of disabilities or not.
We believe this settlement will lead to increased awareness, and, yes, more lawsuits as Americans fight for accessible websites. While most non-web professionals and many web professionals remain unaware of web accessibility guidelines, advocacy groups for disabled persons will use the settlement as a platform for educating both the public and Internet community on the issues created by inaccessible websites. Web developers who understand Section 508 (which applies to Federal government websites, but is often voluntarily adopted by state and local government agencies) or WCAG (even as it evolves) will be in a strong position to assist clients making the transition to accessible websites.
- Spitzer Agreement to Make Web Sites Accessible to the Blind and Visually Impaired
- Priceline, Ramada to Make Sites More Accessible to Blind
- Judge: Disabilities Act doesn’t cover Web
- United States District Court Southern District of Florida Case Number 02-21734-C1V (Access Now/Gumson vs. Southwest Airlines)
- Applicability of the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) to Private Internet Sites