Who reading this blog has ever ordered a pizza online? It’s a simple task, right? You go onto the pizza place’s website, you put in your order and the delivery person shows up at your door within an hour. Sounds easy, and it’s something we all take for granted. Now imagine trying to order a pizza online if you are visually impaired. That’s exactly the problem Guillermo Robles of Los Angeles faced ordering food online from Domino’s Pizza, because the website did not have the software needed for visually impaired people to hear the information audially. Consequently, Robles filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming his rights were violated under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) since he couldn’t access Domino’s website. Obviously, this isn’t a problem unique to Robles. According to the National Institute of Health, the estimated number of legally blind people in the United States is around a million. In addition, about three hundred and fifty thousand seniors in our country are blind.
According to the ADA, “No individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation by any private entity who owns, leases (or leases to), or operates a place of public accommodation.” In court, Robles argued that the ADA applies to websites and physical locations, while Domino’s asserted the ADA only governs physical locations.
Furthermore, Domino’s contends the ADA does not apply to the internet because the federal government has failed to issue guidance on how to make websites accessible for the disabled community. In addition, the United States Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business in a brief supporting Domino’s, argued that Robles wasn’t discriminated against because he had access to a telephone. In contrast, Robles contends that ordering online allows customers to view a more expansive menu, avoid background noise and phone delays. Also, according to Robles, Domino’s pizza only displayed a telephone number readable by screen-reading software after he brought litigation.
During litigation, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the ADA applies to Domino’s website because the internet connects customers with the bricks and mortar of the restaurant. While Domino’s petitioned the Supreme Court to hear the case, the request was recently denied. With other federal courts around the country having ruled on similar litigation, it seems like only a matter of time before the Supreme Court will have to weigh in.
In 1991, when the ADA was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush, lawmakers clearly had no way of knowing how intertwined commerce would be with the internet. However, that doesn’t mean the ADA doesn’t apply to the web. The lawsuit brought by Robles isn’t just about pizza; it goes directly to how visually impaired people are able to participate in the 2019 economy. Joe Manning, the attorney for Mr. Robles, said, “The blind and visually impaired must have access to websites and apps to fully and equally participate in modern society - something nobody disputes.”
Leaving the law aside, I think that Christopher Danielsen from the National Federation of the Blind said it best. “There is a ton of space for innovation in this area…Rather than refusing to take the money of those of us with disabilities, why not innovate and take our money?”
Regardless of whether the Supreme Court ultimately decides to hear a case like this, wouldn’t it be nice if businesses in a 21st century economy took a proactive approach to make their website as accessible as possible to all people?
Evan Carmen, Esq. is the Legislative Director for Aging Policy at the B’nai B’rith International Center for Senior Services. He holds a B.A. from American University in political science and a J.D. from New York Law School. Prior to joining B’nai B’rith International he worked in the Office of Presidential Correspondence for the Obama White House, practiced as an attorney at Covington and Burling, LLP, worked as an aide for New York City Council Member Tony Avella and interned for Congressman Gary Ackerman’s office. Click here to read more from Evan Carmen.
More than 25 years ago President George H.W. Bush signed into law, with bi-partisan support, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which is legislation that provides civil rights protection for people with disabilities. Amongst the many protections the bill affords the disabled community is the ability to access places of public accommodation. Because of the ADA, disabled persons have an easier time entering doctor’s offices, shopping centers, grocery stores, restaurants and other public places.
Recently, the House of Representatives passed the ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017 (H.R. 620), which despite its name, does severe harm to disabled persons. The bill creates additional and unnecessary roadblocks for the disabled community to file civil actions for violations of the ADA regarding places of public accommodation. Under current law an aggrieved individual who can’t access a business can file a complaint with United States Department of Justice, bring litigation or talk with the business owner. It should be noted under federal law that people who file lawsuits and are victorious are only entitled to injunctive relief (removal of the barrier) and attorney’s fees. They are not entitled to damage awards.
Under H.R. 620 the burden would be unfairly shifted to disabled persons to make sure the business community is complying with the ADA. For example, this legislation would force the aggrieved party to file written technical notice, often needing a lawyer, give the offending party 60 days to respond, then force the victim to wait another 120 days to see if “substantial progress” is made to fix the problem, before the matter can legally enter the court system. Is the United States Congress reasonably expecting people with a non-legal background to understand the technical intricacies of the ADA to file notice?
In addition, if businesses are not legally required to make their accommodations accessible under the ADA, what incentive do they have to comply before a complaint is filed in court? Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) who uses a wheelchair said on the House floor, “The idea that places of public accommodation should receive a free pass for six months before correctly implementing a law that has been a part of our legal framework for nearly three decades creates an obvious disincentive for ADA compliance.”
Presently, 16 million seniors have one or more disabilities, with mobility issues being the most common. Are proponents of the bill going to argue the elderly community should have to wait six months or more to visit a hospital or doctor’s office because it’s not accessible? Not to mention being barred from everyday activities like going shopping or the movies.
The ADA has been the law of the land for the past 28 years. Are members of Congress going to argue that businesses have not had enough time to comply with the ADA’s requirements? The ADA National Network, funded by the federal government, offers no cost technical assistance to businesses about how to comply under the law. Furthermore, this assistance is offered at 10 regional centers around the country, and there are tax credits available to businesses that remove barriers for the disabled community. Having almost 30 years of notice, tax credits and the ADA National Network, it’s hard to cry foul that the ADA is too onerous.
Lastly, proponents of the bill believe it’s a necessity because of unethical attorneys who are bringing frivolous lawsuits. People on both sides of this debate can agree that unwarranted litigation is a problem in this country. However, this bill does nothing to fix that problem! First, as referenced above, federal law does not permit plaintiffs to collect damages for cases filed under Title III of the ADA. While it’s true some states permit monetary damages for violations, the current proposal does nothing to change state law. Most importantly, what other member of a federally protected class must wait months to exercise their civil rights against discrimination?
When Bush signed the ADA he said, “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.” Sadly this legislation recreates exclusionary walls for disabled Americans that the ADA fought so hard to knock down. Presently, the United States Senate has shown better judgment than the House of Representatives, with 42 Senators promising to block any vote on this shameful legislation. While that is good news for the disabled community, let’s hope these senators’ commitment does not waiver.
Evan Carmen, Esq. is the Assistant Director for Aging Policy at the B’nai B’rith International Center for Senior Services. He holds a B.A. from American University in political science and a J.D. from New York Law School. Prior to joining B’nai B’rith International he worked in the Office of Presidential Correspondence for the Obama White House, practiced as an attorney at Covington and Burling, LLP, worked as an aide for New York City Council Member Tony Avella and interned for Congressman Gary Ackerman’s office. Click here to read more from Evan Carmen.
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