With the surge of internet users throughout the past decades, interpretation of the law has continuously evolved to accommodate everyone, including persons with disabilities. What should you know about the Americans with Disabilities Act Title III, and how does it affect your website?

Key Takeaways

What is ADA Title III?

Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) mainly covers the way businesses perform their duties to their customers. It states that private entities that are considered places of public accommodation must provide persons with disabilities (PWDs) “full and equal enjoyment” of the related goods, services, privileges, and advantages available to non-disabled persons.

Under this statute, business owners are held accountable for ensuring that “reasonable modifications” are made for their accommodations so that they may serve PWDs.

In the event that a claim is filed under Title III, there are three main things an individual has to note:

  1. That he or she is disabled within the meaning of the ADA
  2. That the defendant owns, leases, or operates a place of public accommodation, and
  3. That the defendant discriminated against the individual by denying him or her a full and equal opportunity to enjoy the services the defendant provides

Who is considered disabled?

According to the ADA, PWDs are defined as individuals having a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities such as breathing, seeing, hearing, speaking, walking, performing self-care, carrying out manual tasks, working, and learning.

Are websites included in “places of public accommodation”?

Generally speaking, public accommodation places include private schools, daycare centers, libraries, museums, amusement parks, retail stores, doctors’ offices, pharmacies, restaurants, theaters, and hotels. Note that “websites” are not stated in this list as, when the law was enacted in 1990, websites were not yet in existence.

However, over the last few decades, the Internet started to change the landscape of the market and how consumers engage with businesses. Along with this, the interpretation of the law has also evolved. Consideration for ADA compliance in relation to web accessibility started to change.

The Ninth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals during the Weyer v. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. case interprets the term “public accommodation” as having “physical space.” Although, there are also cases wherein consideration is given if there is a sufficient “nexus” between the website and the service of physical public accommodation. An example is the case between the National Federation of the Blind v. Target Corp. It was found that the majority of the privileges and benefits of Target’s website (target.com) were also services of their physical stores. The motion to dismiss the claim was denied as the nexus presented in court was sufficient.

On the other hand, there are cases with courts interpreting the term “public accommodation” in a much broader sense. In the case of Morgan v. Joint Administration Board, Retirement Plan of the Pillsbury Co. and American Federation of Grain Millers, Chief Judge Richard Posner of the U.S. Court of Appeals Seventh Circuit stated that,

“The defendant asks us to interpret “public accommodation” literally, as denoting a physical site, such as a store or a hotel, but we have already rejected that interpretation. An insurance company can no more refuse to sell a policy to a disabled person over the Internet than a furniture store can refuse to sell furniture to a disabled person who enters the store.”

Thus, some courts would argue their expansive view as to what “places of public accommodation” encompasses — which includes websites.

In September 2018, Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd wrote an official letter to members of Congress saying, “The Department first articulated its interpretation that the ADA applies to public accommodations’ websites over 20 years ago. This interpretation is consistent with the ADA’s title III requirement that the goods, services, privileges, or activities provided by places of public accommodation be equally accessible to people with disabilities.”

The U.S. Court of Appeals now recognizes the online domain to be eligible for compliance with the ADA and accessibility requirements.

On full and equal opportunities

There’s been a massive shift in our daily activities as the majority of our tasks now involve the use of the Internet. Online purchases, for example, is now more rampant thanks to the ever-evolving digital sphere. According to 2019 data from Statista, 1.92 billion people engaged in online purchases and services, and these numbers are still continuing to grow.

Aside from e-commerce, other activities we do, such as restaurant reservations, food delivery, checking for traffic and bus schedules, all may now be done with the use of the Internet. These changes make web accessibility all the more important.

It is undeniable that a non-accessible website is considered a major liability for any operating company nowadays. In an annual report from Return of Investment, about 1.85 billion PWDs, comprise the market, which is about the size of China and the European Union combined. The purchasing power of PWDs, valued at around $21 billion in 2018, is on the rise. This is greater than that of the African-American plus the Hispanic market.

The emergence of ADA web accessibility lawsuits

The ADA applies to all types of businesses, from large corporations to small and medium enterprises, that fit under at least one of the following criteria:

As previously stated, ADA compliance means a PWD is able to have a “full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation.” It is considered unlawful to fail in providing accessibility for PWDs.

The number of lawsuits related to ADA Title III started to spike up in 2017, with over 816 cases filed. Although by 2019, the numbers tremendously increased with about 100,000 demand letters and over 10,000 lawsuits.

While the media mostly feature large corporations being filed with ADA lawsuits, 85% of cases actually come from small and medium enterprises. Unfortunately, this causes a huge financial burden to these enterprises, given that courts would usually favor the plaintiff. The average settlement agreement costs around $35,000.

What should website owners do for their site to be more ADA Title III compliant?

Web accessibility is undeniably vital in ensuring that the needs of each individual user are taken into account. An accessibility solution for your website is fundamental to avoid potential civil class action and enforcement action liabilities. As stated by Assistant Attorney General Stephen E. Boyd in his letter to Congress: “… the absence of a specific regulation does not serve as a basis for noncompliance with a statute’s requirements. Absent the adoption of specific technical requirements for websites through rulemaking and public accommodations have flexibility in how to comply with the ADA’s general requirements of nondiscrimination and effective communication. Accordingly, noncompliance with a voluntary technical standard for website accessibility does not necessarily indicate noncompliance with the ADA.”

While there are no specific laws or regulations indicating how one’s website can be considered “accessible,” the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is the optimum basis for adherence to the ADA Title III. Many accessibility laws of various governments reference the WCAG 2.0 Level A.A. as a standard and guide for website accessibility. Good thing there are tools that can help you create an accessibility interface on your website. Access-A-Pal is an effective tool that can ensure your website is in line with WCAG 2.1 & ADA Compliance. Start ensuring a superb experience for all of your website visitors with Access-A-Pal.