Recent years have seen an uptick in federal lawsuits filed against businesses and governments, alleging that their website violates the ADA by being insufficiently accessible to people with disabilities. In 2017, there were at least 814 such lawsuits against organizations in a variety of industries, from banks and credit unions to restaurants and e-commerce websites. The defendants include small businesses as well as major corporations such as Nike, Burger King, and the Hershey Company.
In this case, Barnett was a US Airways employee who injured his back, rendering him physically unable to perform his cargo-handling job. Invoking seniority, he transferred to a less-demanding mailroom job, but this position later became open to seniority-based bidding and was bid on by more senior employees. Barnett requested the accommodation of being allowed to stay on in the less-demanding mailroom job. US Airways denied his request, and he lost his job.
The ADA has been criticized on the grounds that it decreases the employment rate for people with disabilities and raises the cost of doing business for employers, in large part due to the additional legal risks, which employers avoid by quietly avoiding hiring people with disabilities. Some researchers believe that the law has been ineffectual. Between 1991 (after the enactment of the ADA) and 1995, the employment rate of men with disabilities dropped by 7.8% regardless of age, educational level, or type of disability, with the most affected being young, less-educated and mentally disabled men. Despite the many criticisms, a causal link between the ADA and declining disabled employment over much of the 1990s has not been definitively identified.
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The attorneys' fees provision of Title III does provide incentive for lawyers to specialize and engage in serial ADA litigation, but a disabled plaintiff does not obtain financial reward from attorneys' fees unless they act as their own attorney, or as mentioned above, a disabled plaintiff resides in a state that provides for minimum compensation and court fees in lawsuits. Moreover, there may be a benefit to these "private attorneys general" who identify and compel the correction of illegal conditions: they may increase the number of public accommodations accessible to persons with disabilities. "Civil rights law depends heavily on private enforcement. Moreover, the inclusion of penalties and damages is the driving force that facilitates voluntary compliance with the ADA." Courts have noted:
The Department of Justice (DOJ) has specifically stated in rulings that websites should be designed so they are accessible to individuals who have vision, hearing, and physical disabilities. There’s a growing body of case law where the DOJ required companies to provide an ADA compliant website and levied hefty penalties when sites failed to measure up.
Title II applies to public transportation provided by public entities through regulations by the U.S. Department of Transportation. It includes the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak), along with all other commuter authorities. This section requires the provision of paratransit services by public entities that provide fixed-route services. ADA also sets minimum requirements for space layout in order to facilitate wheelchair securement on public transport.
Accessibility is important and should be a part of your company or organization’s long-term digital presence strategy. As the web grows ever more refined and personalized, it will no longer be just other entities like the government, Google and the DOJ that expect your site to function with all possible populations in mind. Individual users of all backgrounds, abilities and experience will expect and demand that your site be clear, easy to use and accessible to all.
The consequences for ignoring ADA guidelines for your website and online reservation system can be costly. In California, each instance of non-compliance is punishable by minimum damages of $4,000, plus legal fees. Class action lawsuits can multiply the damages dramatically. Most states have multiple disability laws, so it only makes sense that your website meets ADA compliance immediately.
Access Now v. Southwest Airlines was a case where the District Court decided that the website of Southwest Airlines was not in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, because the ADA is concerned with things with a physical existence and thus cannot be applied to cyberspace. Judge Patricia A. Seitz found that the "virtual ticket counter" of the website was a virtual construct, and hence not a "public place of accommodation." As such, "To expand the ADA to cover 'virtual' spaces would be to create new rights without well-defined standards."