Should a website be considered a “public accommodation” just like a business’s physical location? A recent case in Florida explored just that question, as a blind consumer sued the popular Winn-Dixie grocery chain because their website was inaccessible — and won. Cases like this one have big implications for the future of online accessibility.
The customer, Juan Carlos Gil, said he preferred to use the website to order prescriptions, but was unable to do so because it wouldn’t work with his screenreader.
By bringing the case to court, he set a precedent, as this is the first trial involving an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) suit against a consumer website to make it this far — similar cases against other companies have been settled out of court. By ruling that the website was subject to accessibility requirements, the judge created an opening for similar suits, and issued a warning for companies developing or upgrading websites.
Winn-Dixie has announced that it will be appealing the judgment, which could generate further caselaw supporting the argument for accessibility if an appellate judge upholds the decision.
Opponents of the Americans with Disabilities Act are fond of claiming it creates an incentive for “nuisance lawsuits” and that it’s not really necessary because the free market encourages businesses to be accessible. The experience of disabled people doesn’t support these claims. Mounting lawsuits to defend basic civil rights is expensive, time-consuming, and grueling, making “nuisance” or “driveby” suits rare. Furthermore, businesses don’t necessarily comply with either the spirit or law of the ADA, even when built after 1990 and therefore subject to its requirements.
With more and more public life being lived online, the Winn-Dixie case is a critical step for disability rights. We already know the disability community isn’t as active online, with accessibility being one barrier, but we also know the internet is becoming a fixed part of public life. That creates a danger that disabled people will be left further behind.
Some tasks, including dealing with government agencies and handling health care needs, are becoming extremely difficult without internet access. Sometimes, disabled people also simply want to access the same convenience nondisabled people enjoy – especially when it meets an access need. The ability to order products online for delivery is tremendously helpful, for example, whether people are ordering food, medical supplies, or household goods. Similarly, disabled people want to be able to use Netflix (with and without the chill), read online news, and much more.
Speaking of Netflix, d/Deaf and hard of hearing activists deserve prominent credit for their accessibility work in the ongoing fight for online captioning, which established a blueprint for future online access work. Their groundbreaking Netflix lawsuit played a big role in improving the company’s captioning. Advocates have used an existing body of legislation, regulations, and caselaw to force online streaming services to meet legal requirements for captioning, highlighting that the internet should be treated like the physical world.
Their work provides some instructive information for those pushing website accessibility elsewhere. For disability activists, their long fight illustrates the need to keep pushing, and to use a number of tools in the process. Captioning advocates employed lawsuits, but they also used opinion editorials, hashtags, videos, and other tools to get their message across. As they were suing, they were also hard at work making companies look bad for refusing to meet their access needs. High profile members of the d/Deaf community, like Marlee Matlin, were also engaged in the captioning fight, which increased media coverage and attention from outside the disability community.
Joining forces with advocacy groups was also key, as seen not just with online captioning but with cases that turned into settlements, involving online retailers, banks, and many other institutions. The weight of these groups can be valuable for people who are unlikely to win a fight alone — a lone advocate facing down with Hulu, for example, can’t get far.
But these cases are also instructive for companies. Those who are working on their websites should be involving disabled consultants — including disabled web developers and online accessibility experts — from the very beginning.
By foregrounding access from the start, companies can avoid costly fixes for needless mistakes. They may also discover benefits to accessibility, like a website that loads more cleanly and is easier to navigate for everyone.
Winn-Dixie could have saved itself $250,000 and the cost of Gil’s legal fees by considering accessibility a key component of website development. The store learned its lesson, but are other retailers paying attention?
s.e. smith is a writer and agitator based in Northern California, focusing on social justice, with a particular interest in disability rights, trans issues, and rural subjects. smith’s work has appeared in publications like Pacific Standard, Rolling Stone, The Guardian, In These Times, and Vox. You can follow smith on Twitter @sesmith.