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Access to Websites for Persons With Disabilities

The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) requires public businesses to provide equal access to their venues for persons with disabilities. Under Subchapter III of the ADA, such public establishments include, among others, restaurants, movie theaters, stores, and places of education. Now, the increases in businesses that operate exclusively online, without a physical location, call the reach of the ADA into dispute.

In June 2012, the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts decided this issue of first impression in National Association of the Deaf v. Netflix, Inc. The court held that the ADA applies to businesses that operate exclusively on the Internet. The National Association of the Deaf sued Netflix, Inc., arguing that by failing to provide closed captioning for all of its content, Netflix was in violation of the ADA. Netflix, Inc. argued that it was not required to provide disability access to its site because it was not a “place of public accommodation” within the meaning of the ADA. The court based its opinion on the public policy underlying the ADA, which aims to provide equal access to public amenities for persons with disabilities. With the exponential rise in online businesses, the court found that it was within this public policy to allow persons with disabilities to access these sites alongside other members of society. One month later, the United States District Court for the Northern District of California reached the opposite conclusion in Cullen v. Netflix, Inc. In this case, the court looked to its prior decisions and held that the ADA’s reach is limited to public establishments with “physical structures.” These two opposite holdings show that the nature and reach of the ADA, as it pertains to online businesses, has not been solidified yet.

The Department of Justice has reviewed the ADA and provided regulations and guidelines for accessible website designs. For example, business can make their sites accessible to persons with disabilities by adopting a simple page layout throughout the site. This makes it especially easier for visitors with visual impairments to locate information quickly and easily. Websites may also provide transcriptions for any video or audio on the site for visitors with hearing impairments. Finally, websites may improve accessibility for persons with disabilities by inviting such visitors to notify website managers of ways to improve site accessibility. Nonetheless, in the absence of a binding uniform standard for website access, the reach of the ADA towards online businesses is still very much in the hands of courts in their individual jurisdictions.

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