I should mention one caveat to all of this. Businesses that are required to comply but don't have the ability to bring their websites into compliance can provide an accessible alternative to provide the same information, goods, and services that they provide online, like a staffed phone line. The trick, however, is that this option has to provide at least equal access, including in terms of hours of operation. And, as we know, the internet is around 24/7, so good luck with that.
You are correct, ADA defines an “employer” as any person who is 1) engaged in an industry affecting commerce; 2) employes 15 or more full-time employees each work day; and 3) for at least 20 or more calendar weeks in the year. In the context of physical spaces, ADA would not apply to companies with fewer than 15 employees. However, courts don’t seem to have come to a consensus on what digital compliance really should look like. Because websites can be accessed anywhere in the country, small business owners might potentially face lawsuits in unfavorable jurisdictions. If you are a small business owner, I would recommend consulting with an accessibility lawyer and ask what they recommend.
Any business that is considered a “place of public accommodation” is required to provide equal access to services under the nondiscrimination requirements of Title III of ADA. When you look at the guidelines closely, this includes hotels, entertainment venues, legal and accounting firms, retail stores, and virtually every business that is not a private club, including businesses that exist solely on the web.
According to the DOJ, “Being unable to access websites puts individuals with disabilities at a great disadvantage in today’s society.” With these words in mind, the DOJ has rapidly adopted the role of web accessibility enforcer. A failure to make digital content, including websites, accessible to all individuals regardless of their emotional, physical, or mental disabilities, can result in hefty fines and class action lawsuits. In short, the DOJ is dedicated to making sure that individuals with disabilities have the same equal access to the benefits that are available online. Creating equal access is only possible if organizations a) understand the requirements of web accessibility, b) know that web accessibility is an obligation under the ADA, and c) make web accessibility a priority. The value that awaits when organizations adhere to digital accessibility laws can be measured in more than dollars and cents.
That’s good news if you are one of the many Americans who have a visual, hearing, or mobility disability that makes it difficult to access some information on the web. If you are a business owner who hasn’t made provisions to ensure that your website and other online assets are ADA compliant, you could be looking at a host of legal and financial penalties.
On July 26, 2010 (on the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act) President Obama stated that ADA accessibility must also apply to the Internet. With that declaration, the Justice Department was tasked with setting rules for ADA accessibility for the Internet and websites. Since that time, the Justice Department has formulated recommended rules for ADA website accessibility. Those rules will soon be refined and officially released in the near future. Until then, there is a set of guidelines currently in place (http://www.w3.org/WAI/WCAG20/quickref) for websites to become ADA accessible. Even with these guidelines in place, many hospitality businesses have not yet complied with the guidelines. Now is the time to begin the process of making your current website ADA accessible or to consider a new website design that is ADA accessible.
Currently, the law is a little bit murky when it comes to ADA compliance on a website. Courts have been interpreting ADA in various ways when it comes to website compliance. Some courts have stated that any US business must have an ADA-compliant website. Some courts have said that the website must have a “nexus” to a physical location which must be ADA compliant before their website must also be compliant. This is why Facebook was able to dismiss a 2011 ADA case in California, but Home Depot was no...