Internet Not a "Place of Public Accomodation"

A U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a October 2002 lower court ruling that the World Wide Web is not a ‘place of public accommodation’ under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. At least for now, this means that online news publishers in America aren’t legally required to provide full Web site access for the disabled.

The appealed case arose when Robert Gumson, a blind man who uses software that converts online text into synthesized speech couldn’t purchase Southwest Airlines tickets online because unlabeled graphics, inadequately labeled data tables, and purely graphical navigation links made that airline’s Web site all but impossible for visually-impaired people to use. Gumson is one of 1.5 million Americans with vision impairments who use the Internet. He and an advocacy group for disabled people sued Southwest, which meanwhile redesigned its site for better ADA access.

In 2002, a federal court in Florida ruled for the airline, finding that the ADA applies only to “physical, concrete places of public accommodation.” But Gumson and the advocacy group appealed, now claiming that his difficulties accessing Southwest’s site prevented him from using the airline’s physical flights themselves.


But an appeals court on Friday ruled that this was an entirely new argument, not heard by the lower court, and therefore there isn’t procedural grounds to overrule that court’s decision.

However, appeals court Judge Stanley Marcus said that, “In declining to evaluate the merits of this case, we are in no way unmindful that the legal questions raised are significant. The Internet is transforming our economy and culture, and the question whether it is covered by the ADA — one of the landmark civil rights laws in this country — is of substantial public importance.”

The National Federation of the Blind asked the U.S. Congress in 2002 to expand the ADA to include the Web. Earlier this summer, the World Wide Web Consortium released the working draft of version 2 of its Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. And the equivalent of the ADA in many other countries do requires that Web publishers do provide full access for the disabled (For example, the Association of Online Publishers in the U.K. is working through the implications of its nation’s 1995 Disability Discrimination Act.)

I’ve found that too many online news sites aren’t accessible from PDAs, mobile phones, and new browsers (such as Opera or Mozilla), nonetheless accessible to the disabled. Major news site #&151; such as NYTimes.com or WashingtonPost.com &151; fail to use functions as simple as ALT tags. Such sites tell me that they don’t have time, while covering breaking news stories, to use simple HTML functions such as ALT tags. Well, perhaps they’ve never looked at breaking news sites such as the news.bbc.co.uk, which able uses those HTML functions such as ALT tags. It’s a lazy shame.

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