Outdated disabilities act stymies internet’s benefits
In 1990, President George H. W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law. One of the achievements of the ADA was to make public spaces more accessible to those with physical disabilities.
This is why sidewalk curbs have ramps at intersections, restrooms often feature accessible stalls for those in wheelchairs and signage in public buildings feature braille. But the ADA never considered an internet website.
Why not? In 1990, the first website and the first browser to scan the web were created. The internet did not exist as we know it today. It did not even exist as we knew it 15 years ago.
In 1990, it is almost a sure bet that even the most forward-looking lawmaker was not thinking about whether websites should accommodate disabled users under the ADA. Even if that prescient lawmaker could foresee the connected world of today, he or she did not capture this vision in the text of the law.
This has not stopped plaintiffs and their lawyers from arguing that the failure to maintain a website that is accessible to the visually and hearing impaired is a violation of the ADA. According to a recent New York Times article, there were 250 lawsuits in 2015 and 2016 combined and 432 lawsuits during the first eight months of 2017.
In addition, the U.S. Department of Justice during the Obama administration sent threatening letters to institutions for alleged website ADA noncompliance and routinely filed statements of interest in litigation claiming that the ADA applies to websites.
For example, the University of California, Berkeley posted 20,000 hours of lectures online for viewing by anyone, free of charge. Because the lectures lacked captions for the hearing impaired, the Department of Justice contended that Berkeley was violating the ADA.
Rather than bear the expense of adding captions, Berkeley stopped offering videos and removed all of the existing video content from its website. Harvard and MIT have also faced similar litigation.