Should websites be accessible to everyone, including the blind?
That’s the question at the center of an ongoing lawsuit against the pizza restaurant Domino’s that was filed by a blind user in 2016 after he was unable to order pizzas through the company’s website, despite using screen reading software. Because he could not make an order, despite using screen reading software, the user alleged that the site was not accessible to blind people and as a result Domino’s was violating the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. Now, the company has petitioned the Supreme Court to hear its case, after a federal appeals court ruled that the company had to make its website accessible to comply with the ADA. If the Supreme Court decides to hear arguments on the case, the ruling could set a precedent for the future of web design, deciding if companies must make their digital presences as accessible as their brick-and-mortar locations.
In the petition, Domino’s argues that the ADA does not specifically mandate companies to create accessible sites and apps because it was written before the rise of the internet as we know it, and the cost to its business to design its website and apps to be more accessible would run into the millions. However, federal judges so far have disagreed with the company’s position. By excluding blind users from the digital economy, they lack access to online services, even if it’s something as simple as ordering pizza.
“If businesses are allowed to say, ‘We do not have to make our websites accessible to blind people,’ that would be shutting blind people out of the economy in the 21st century,” Christopher Danielsen, a representative for the National Federation of the Blind, told CNBC.
But the situation is complicated by the fact that while the government is very clear about what an ADA-compliant building looks like, it has not issued clear rules about what an accessible website looks like. Domino’s argues that because there are no regulations about what accessibility means for an online site, the current ruling would open up many companies to more litigation. “Left undisturbed, the Ninth Circuit’s decision would turn that flood of litigation into a tsunami,” Domino’s lawyers write in the petition. (Domino’s declined to comment for this story.)
However, there are international accessibility standards already, like the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines established by the World Wide Web Consortium, an international community that creates standards for the internet. Another way to address this problem would be for the Department of Justice to create a guide to accessible design—a project that the DOJ began in 2010 but abandoned in 2017 because the agency said it was still pondering whether such regulations were “necessary and appropriate.”
The number of lawsuits focused on inaccessible websites is growing. According to UsableNet, a company that designs accessible technology, there were 2,200 cases in the United States in 2018, an increase of 181% over 2017—plaintiffs have sued art galleries, wineries, and even Beyoncé. At stake is whether everyone should be included in the digital economy, regardless of whether the transition to accessible websites is onerous for businesses.