Does Disability Act Apply Online? Tech, Disability Groups Want to Know

The Americans with Disabilities Act, which predated the rise of the internet, doesn't explicitly apply to the web. Could a court decision change that? It's a question that has both disability advocates and tech groups watching a case brought by the National Federation of the Blind.

The internet is a big place, and pages across the web vary greatly in quality and ease of use. Nowhere, perhaps, is this more evident than when it comes to accessibility for people with disabilities.

In recent years, legal challenges over the issue have ensnared companies such as Netflix and eBay. The former settled a lawsuit brought by the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), agreeing to add closed captioning to all of its content. In eBay’s case, a deaf user sued the auction site because it required phone verification for new sellers.

But litigation filed last year may prove the most direct shot yet at a question that’s dogged internet companies and disability advocacy groups alike: Does the Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, apply to the internet?

The lawsuit, brought by the National Federation of the Blind against the online book-sharing service Scribd, alleges violations of Title III of the ADA, which requires that places of public accommodation be accessible to people with disabilities. NFB claims that the company uses technology incompatible with screen-reading software used by blind people to read online content.

“Access to electronic information is no longer a mere convenience; it is essential to success, productivity, and equal participation in society,” NFB President Mark Riccobono said in a July statement. “Other technology companies have made electronic documents accessible to blind readers, and Scribd has a moral and legal obligation to do the same.”

But, like Netflix and eBay before it, Scribd has argued that the ADA does not apply to it because it doesn’t have a physical presence. In 2012, U.S. District Judge Michael Ponsor rejected a similar argument by Netflix in the NAD case, and that decision led to the settlement. The eBay case got the opposite result: The trial judge dismissed the lawsuit, and it is currently on appeal.

NFB is represented in the Scribd case by Haben Girma, a lawyer at the nonprofit Disability Rights Advocates who has been deaf and blind since birth. She brings personal experience to her legal work on accessibility issues, she told Business Insider last year.

“I found that as someone who is blind and deaf, I have specialized knowledge about the tools and services and needs of this community, and I bring that knowledge to my work,” Girma said. “So that is an advantage I have over other lawyers and that is one thing that helps me in representing the National Federation of the Blind, that I have this knowledge about technology and techniques and the needs of the blind community.”

Meanwhile, a major trade group in the tech sector argues that applying the ADA to the internet would create burdensome problems for businesses and stifle innovation.

“Liability would potentially flow not merely to large conglomerates, but also to small web-only businesses or even individuals who have neither the wherewithal nor the technical skill necessary to comply” with the ADA’s requirements, the Internet Association argued in an amicus brief filed in the eBay case, according to the ABA Journal.

Lawyer Haben Girma, who has used her experiences as a blind and deaf person to lead a National Federation of the Blind lawsuit against Scribd. (Handout photo)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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