Court Rules Web Need Not Be Accessible

Court Rules Web Need Not Be Accessible

October 2002

In a recent Federal Court decision, U.S. District Judge Patricia Seitz ruled that Southwest Airlines does not need to make its website accessible to people with reduced vision. The basis for the ruling is that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies only to physical space, not to the Internet. Judge Seitz wrote, “To expand the ADA to cover ‘virtual’ spaces would be to create new rights without well-defined standards. The plain and unambiguous language of the statute and relevant regulations does not include Internet Web sites.”

The lawsuit was filed by a blind advocacy group called Access Now and a blind man named Robert Gumson.

Gumson navigates the Internet and “reads” web pages with the assistance of a screen reader and voice synthesizer. This technology captures text from a website and converts it to voice, which a blind person hears. This works great for conveying textual information, but not at all for graphical information. Gumson’s suit sought to require websites to provide the simple accommodation of providing text information corresponding to the information provided in graphics. This accommodation is invisible to people who visit the site with standard equipment, but allows the site graphics to be accessed by those using screen readers.

The ADA requires that any “place of public accommodation” must be accessible to people with disabilities. However, Judge Seitz noted that the ADA also listed twelve specific categories, and that the failure of the Internet to be included in those categories means that the law does not apply to the Internet.

Representatives of the Cato Institute, the National Federation of Independent Business, and the Manhattan Institute applauded the ruling, arguing that it prevented the ADA from further intruding on the rights of private businesses.

This issue has previously been considered by Congress. In 1996, the Clinton administration suggested to Congress that the ADA could apply to businesses with Internet websites. The House of Representatives held a hearing, but chose not to amend the ADA to incorporate this requirement.

A February 2000 appeal to Congress from a National Federation of the Blind Board member also went unheeded.

At least one similar lawsuit has resulted in the defendant choosing to provide appropriate access. A 1999 suit by the National Federation of the Blind against America Online (AOL) was settled when AOL agreed to modify its site to accommodate screen readers.

What I find difficult to accept is the notion that an organization would choose NOT to provide the kind of access sought by this lawsuit. The Internet community has worked very hard to ensure that providing access to people with disabilities is easy. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) launched its Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) in 1997 and has consistently maintained “best practices” documents that explain how to make a website accessible. These guidelines are the basis for web accessibility programs in Canada, Australia, and much of Europe. They are also the basis the requirements of Section 508 of the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, which requires that Federal government websites be accessible.

Here’s the contact information for Southwest Airlines, in case you’d like to let them know what you think about their refusal to accommodate blind people on their website.

Southwest Airlines
Customer Relations
P.O. Box 36647 – 1CR
Dallas, Texas 75235-1647
214-792-4223 (voice)

Unfortunately, there’s not much we can do about Judge Patricia Seitz.