Website accessibility under Title III

When I was in law school our assignment for mock trial in Legal Research and Writing was a debate regarding whether websites were “places of public accommodation” under title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

This was a fairly novel idea at the time.  Title III requires that places of public accommodation, like grocery stores, must make their stores accessible to disabled shoppers.  As with any law school mock trial assignment we had to argue both sides with equal fervor.

Over the last several years this debate has continued in real courtrooms across the country.  This month another court stepped into the fray.  In Juan Carlos Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc., the judge ruled the Winn-Dixie grocery store must make its website accessible to the disabled.  Gil, the plaintiff, is legally blind and the Winn-Dixie website was incompatible with screen readers that he used to browse the website.

The Judge in this case did not specifically address whether a website is a place of public accommodation, but stated:

The Court need not decide whether Winn-Dixie’s website is a public accommodation in and of itself, because the factual findings demonstrate that the website is heavily integrated with Winn-Dixie’s physical store locations and operates as a gateway to the physical store locations.

This integration with the physical Winn-Dixie stores is more than just an advertising platform but

The services offered on Winn-Dixie’s website, such as the online pharmacy management system, the ability to access digital coupons that link automatically to a customer’s rewards card, and the ability to find store locations, are undoubtedly services, privileges, advantages, and accommodations offered by Winn-Dixie’s physical store locations.

Thus, the judge found that Winn-Dixie had violated the ADA Title III and issued an injunction which requires, among other provisions, that Winn-Dixie’s

website must be accessible by individuals with disabilities who use computers, laptops, tablets,
and smart phones

If you would like to test how your webpage renders on a screen reader, there is a chrome extension called ChromeVox, that will let you browse the web using a screen reader.  Anyone who doesn’t understand the reason why this is important should install this extension and browse the web for a half and hour with your eyes closed.  The experience should be quite enlightening.