Does the Americans With Disabilities Act Require Websites to Accommodate People With Disabilities?

WWW representing World Wide Web. With glasses and comment bubble to depict the concept of seeing and hearing.
WWW representing World Wide Web. With glasses and comment bubble to depict the concept of seeing and hearing. | Source

The Americans with Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has been a law since July 26, 1990. The law prohibits discrimination and guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in the mainstream of American life – to enjoy employment opportunities, to purchase goods and services, and to participate in state and local government programs and services.

--Excerpt from the Americans with Disabilities Act.

ADA Compliance Requirements

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), businesses that provide goods or services to the public are called “public accommodations.” The ADA requires these businesses to provide an accessible route that allows people with disabilities to have independent access. Business establishments are required to install ramps, provide wider stalls, and have lower counters to make access and conducting business easier. In addition to structural requirements, business establishments must be able to communicate successfully with customers who are deaf, hard of hearing, have speech disabilities, blind, or have low vision. To communicate with people who are deaf, a business would be required to provide a sign language communicator, an oral interpreter, or other service to allow the person to communicate effectively with the business. To communicate with people who are blind, a business would be required to provide an oral version of their information. For example, a restaurant establishment might provide their menu in an audio recording or the waiter would have to actually read the menu to the patron. The only way to get out of ADA obligations is to prove to the ADA that providing such service would constitute an undue burden.

Association of the Deaf Against Netflix

Netflix logo with red background and white capital letters spelling the company name Netflix.
Netflix logo with red background and white capital letters spelling the company name Netflix. | Source

Read the Case: Association of the Deaf Versus Netflix

National Association of the Deaf, western Massachusetts Association of the Deaf and Hearing Impaired, and Lee Nettles, Plaintiffs, v. Netflix, Inc., Defendant. Civil Action No. 3:11-cv-30168

Case: Netflix and the Association of the Deaf

A most prominent case is one involving a company called Netflix. Netflix is a video streaming service. While there is no physical building that houses the Netflix company, in 2012 a Massachusetts court ruled that Netflix is a place of public accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Americans with Disabilities Act reasoned that Netflix’s website is the same as a brick and mortar facility, therefore, required to provide accommodating services for people who are impaired.

Netflix was fortunate that a California Court later ruled that a video service, such as that which Netflix provides, is not a place of physical accommodation. There is no physical location, therefore, it should not be required to make its website ADA compliant.

Does the Americans With Disabilities Act Require Websites to Accommodate People With Disabilities?

The short answer is yes! But, it’s complicated. While the ADA classifies websites as places of public accommodations, the jury is still out as to whether or not that classification is accurate. Currently, there are no specific mandates imposed upon website owners, but that may change in the future.

My Brick and Mortar Real Estate Company

While, today, my real estate company exists as a website domain name only, there was a time when I maintained a brick and mortar real estate brokerage, a physical place where agents and clients could meet and conduct business. Having a physical address meant that I was required to conform to the mandates of the ADA. To accommodate people with wheelchairs, I had to make sure my office could be accessed by a wheelchair. I had to have at least one restroom that accommodated wheelchairs. Everything about my office had to be modeled to accommodate people with disabilities. It is the law, so it was done.

I would be required to assist in other ways, as well. For example, when assisting a blind or hearing impaired person in negotiating the sale of a house, I would be required to provide all relevant documents in a useable format for the client. That meant, providing the documents on a disk or audio file. If the client had equipment with screen-reading technology, I may have needed to provide the documents by email so that the client could use his or her equipment to read the documents prior to signing them.

My Real Estate Website

I still maintain my real estate broker’s license, but I am retired from actively helping clients buy and sell real estate. Instead, I have a website that offers information to people interested in reading news about the real estate industry. Now, one of my main concerns is whether or not I might be required to update my website to accommodate people with disabilities.

The ADA identifies websites as places of public accommodations. The implication with this classification is that websites should be forced to comply with ADA rules.

Currently, my website is not compliant with ADA rules, however, I foresee many battles against websites as the ADA steps up its enforcement efforts against websites that are not ADA compliant.

Website Owners and the ADA

Since the ADA classifies websites as places of public accommodations, and since the question is still out as to whether or not the ADA's classification of websites is accurate, I wonder if website owners will become victims of ADA compliance requirements. I agree that companies with brick and mortar locations should be required to do all that they can to provide reasonable access to their establishments.

I know of many business owners who have had to take out re-construction loans in order to comply with the demands of the ADA. I can’t imagine the impact it would have on website owners if we were required to provide ADA retrofits in order to be in compliance with ADA standards.

Proposed Rule Regarding Public Accommodations

The U.S. Department of Justice has issued an advance notice of proposed rule-making on this issue and has taken the position that websites are places of public accommodations.

Website Owners Should be Prepared for the ADA

It is wise to assume that there will likely come a time when website owners will be mandated to comply with ADA standards. In order to be ready when that happens, website owners may want to start providing closed captioning for audio content and text-to-speech software for users with hearing and vision impairments.

While the ADA indicates that websites are places of public accommodations, there are no specific requirements for website owners to conform to the same mandates as brick and mortar businesses. It appears, however, that the ADA is moving in the direction of clearly identifying specific responsibilities of website owners, requiring them to provide hearing and visual resources for people with disabilities.

Website owners may not have a physical address, but we do serve the public, and therein lies the rationale for proposing laws upon website owners, mandating that we design websites that can be navigated by the general public. The general public includes people with disabilities.

© 2015 Marlene Bertrand

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Comments 20 comments

MarleneB profile image

MarleneB 17 months ago from Northern California, USA Author

Hello Suzanne Day. Of course, when I operated out of a physical location, I was handed information about how to become compliant. But, I just recently started reading more about how web masters should start thinking about creating websites that catered to people who have challenges engaging with websites. You are right, it could be a good target market. It just takes a little compassion. A little goes a long way.


Suzanne Day profile image

Suzanne Day 17 months ago from Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

It sounds rather an imposition on small business owners to update their websites like that - however, everyone understands the importance of providing access to services/goods to as many people as possible to assist in selling them and to get into the marketplace - could be a good target market! I do think large companies should be mandated to provide non-discriminatory access but rather than be punished for not doing so, maybe they could be warned and allowed time to fix any issues first (after all, sometimes the issues really aren't known by all webmasters). Voted useful!


MarleneB profile image

MarleneB 17 months ago from Northern California, USA Author

Hello justmesuzanne. Thank you so much for your valuable feedback. What a wonderful feeling it must be to be part of an organization that helps people with challenges.


justmesuzanne profile image

justmesuzanne 17 months ago from Texas

I was involved in writing the ADA. While it is true that public places are required to be accessible, it is also true that there is grant money available to make the necessary changes. Changes such as wheelchair ramps, widening doorways and providing accessible restroom facilities are beneficial to many patrons, not just people who use wheelchairs.

Most deaf people have access to interpreter services for important matters such as buying a house, and funding is also available for this. While I am not familiar with the Netflix case, I suspect the problem was that Netflix was not making certain that their streamed offerings were closed-captioned whenever possible. This is a small matter, and they should take the time to be sure that, whenever possible, the movies and programs they offer are closed captioned.

For the blind and visually impaired, written material can be presented in a number of formats including brailled, spoken or electronic. Is it really such a terrible imposition to email a document so that your customer can read it using his/her own specialized equipment?

Providing equal access to all consumers is a good thing. I helped write the ADA and I continue to support it and advocate for it.


MarleneB profile image

MarleneB 20 months ago from Northern California, USA Author

Hello pstraubie48. Sometimes, we don't realize how difficult it might be for others until we take a glance in their direction. Taking a moment to enlarge fonts and little things like that only help make life easier for others. And by the way, thank you for steering the angels in my direction.


pstraubie48 profile image

pstraubie48 20 months ago from sunny Florida

Interesting. And thoughtfully written. The internet does open whole new questions that confront users and those who maintain businesses in this venue

I had never given this much thought (I use large captioning on some shows that I cannot hear well on Netflix, for example) so I can see how things like this can be called in to question.

Thanks for sharing.

Voted up+++ and shared

Angels are on the way to you this morning ps


MarleneB profile image

MarleneB 20 months ago from Northern California, USA Author

Hello catmalone. Thank you for your feedback. It most definitely is happening and website owners who design with compassion will serve a greater number of people.


catmalone profile image

catmalone 20 months ago

That's Great! This is very well written and I can see something like this happening.


MarleneB profile image

MarleneB 21 months ago from Northern California, USA Author

Hi georgescifo. Thank you for your feedback. As a website owner, I understand that there may be challenges for people with visual disabilities. I do what I can to accommodate. As I learn how to provide helpful tools on my website, I am actually happy incorporate them.


georgescifo profile image

georgescifo 21 months ago from India

In my opinion there needs to be a website to accommodate people with certain disabilities. You have presented your views and facts very well in this hub and is really worth a read.


MarleneB profile image

MarleneB 21 months ago from Northern California, USA Author

Thank, Victoria Lynn. I'm anxious to see how this all fans out, as well.


Victoria Lynn profile image

Victoria Lynn 21 months ago from Arkansas, USA

This is something I've never though about. It will be interesting to see what direction it goes. You presented this information very well!


MarleneB profile image

MarleneB 21 months ago from Northern California, USA Author

Hello Blackspaniel1. You bring up a very good point... photos. No matter how compliant we are, there are going to be issues we just won't be able to adequately overcome. I think the best thing we can do about accommodating people with vision challenges is to describe the photos in the caption area.


Blackspaniel1 profile image

Blackspaniel1 21 months ago

One thing that cannot happen is braille websites. So, the only option is speech. However, my website relies upon images, so that would be another problem.


MarleneB profile image

MarleneB 22 months ago from Northern California, USA Author

Yes, vkwok, I agree. It's actually something we are supposed to be doing already, but the ADA doesn't know how to go about mandating it. It certainly would be a great attraction to more visitors who are left out of the loop because of a limitation to read or hear.


vkwok profile image

vkwok 22 months ago from Hawaii

This is an interesting topic you bring up, Marlene. I think that it would be great for people with disabilities if websites could accommodate them. And it would also bring a wider range of audience, customers, or visitors to the website owners.


MarleneB profile image

MarleneB 22 months ago from Northern California, USA Author

Hi Kathleen. Thank you for your feedback. I finally understand the importance of placing a caption under the photo. It encourages me to write better descriptions. In the past, I've just written "cute" little notes under the photo. Now, I see that it is more important to describe the photo. I'll start with the Netflix photo in this publication. Thanks for visiting!


Kathleen K. Poole 22 months ago

There are things that web developers can do to make their sites more friendly to hearing and sight impaired people. I took a web dev class in 2010 and we were strongly encouraged to take those steps. For example if you hover over a picture a description will or should appear in a white box. There are programs that will read text from a web page out loud, the description is read in place of seeing the picture. Don't know what to do about those with diabetics, cut down on sugar, perhaps?


MarleneB profile image

MarleneB 22 months ago from Northern California, USA Author

Bill, thank you for your kind words of encouragement. My knowledge stems from having to personally deal with this issue. Then I caught wind of the ADA's intent to move aggressively toward their mandates. I started reading more and felt the need to share. You're welcome! (smiley face)


billybuc profile image

billybuc 22 months ago from Olympia, WA

I am impressed not only with your knowledge about this topic, but in the way you presented this information. There was no judgmental attitude in your writing, and it would have been so easy for you to do so. Nicely written. This is a sticky wicket if I've ever seen one, and a whole lot of problems are hovering in the periphery just waiting to bust loose. Thanks for the information, my friend.

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