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It’s a question many of us in accessibility have been waiting for years to be answered.

Does the Americans with Disabilities Act apply to the web?

Sadly, accessibility’s ultimate cliffhanger once again reaches an awkward denouement, leaving us deflated, and looking at yet another boring sequel. The National Federation of the Blind v. Target lawsuit, which promised to be a landmark case in determining the applicability of the ADA, was settled on Wednesday. The key provisions of the settlement have Target paying $6 million in damages to the members of the class action (which consists of legally blind people who have been denied Target’s online services), and agreeing to remove accessibility barriers to blind users by February of 2009.

As with most settlements, however, Target admits no wrongdoing, and so the ADA’s applicability to the web remains fuzzy. (Especially to a non-lawyer such as myself; please don’t consider this as anything like legal advice.) The legal ramifications of this case may not be as clear-cut as some of us would have liked, but it’d be hard to argue that after this decision people with disabilities are in any way on shakier legal ground.

One twist in this case was the application of two California laws: the Disabled Persons Act and the Unruh Civil Rights Act. Both of these offer protections over and above those of the ADA, for California citizens, such as the named plaintiff, Bruce Sexton. Even if we ignore the ADA for a moment, this means that sites who do business in California could be liable under these laws for denying access.

Whatever the legal ramifications may be, those of us who advocate accessibility don’t want to make this into a series of legal battles. There are no winners there. (Okay, besides the lawyers.) We want people to realize that engaging with people with disabilities well before the threat of legal action arises is always the best approach. When a company stalls and takes a case to court, delays, public relations nightmares, and skyrocketing costs are all that happens. In this case, Target will pay out well over $6 million in damages, when one-tenth–maybe even a hundredth–of that amount could have paid a dream team of accessibility-savvy designers ready to solve the actual issues at hand.

The question that’s on our minds today–whether ADA applies or not–ultimately doesn’t make much difference. In fact, it’s a major distraction from the heart of the matter. People of all kinds want to participate in all the activities the web has to offer. And many disability advocacy groups are reaching out to site admins to raise awareness of the barriers they face. The best thing you can do is to prepare yourself and your site with a little education and some fine tuning. When you’re in a lawyer’s office talking about the ADA, or any other accessibility statute, chances are you’ve already missed out on the most important part of the conversation. And that’s going to cost you, whether you win or lose.

Update: This post has been translated into Polish.

Your Replies

#1 On August 28th, 2008 1:44 pm