Academic journal article Information Technology and Disabilities

Analyzing Recent Americans with Disabilities Act-Based Accessible Information Technology Court Challenges

Academic journal article Information Technology and Disabilities

Analyzing Recent Americans with Disabilities Act-Based Accessible Information Technology Court Challenges

Article excerpt

Websites, just like buildings, can be designed to meet the needs of all people, including those with disabilities. The evolution of disability rights laws has resulted in the understanding that access to information and communication is a civil right for people with disabilities. For example, in the digital age, employees may expect an accessible intranet/Internet environment as a reasonable accommodation; students may expect access to distance learning courses; citizens may expect access to Internet kiosks for voting or participating in business or governmental transactions; and consumers may expect access to electronic textbooks and the Web-based environment. Unfortunately, however, web pages frequently contain major access barriers to effective communication and participation in the cybersociety of the new millennium. Consequently, the digital divide will continue to persist if this issue is not addressed through technological innovations, research, education, outreach, and laws.

In the United States, several legal cases have attempted to apply the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to the Internet. In the past few years, lawsuits have been filed against America Online, Barnes and Noble, and Claire's Stores alleging that their websites violated the ADA, but the cases were either settled out of court or dropped when the company agreed to make its software compatible with devices designed for visually impaired users. In late 2002, in the first cases to come to trial, one federal judge ruled that Southwest Airlines does not have to revamp its website and virtual ticket counters, while another federal judge ruled that the Atlanta, Georgia mass transit agency violated the ADA by constructing a website that was inaccessible for people with visual disabilities. Though both cases involved the ADA, Southwest was decided under Title III of the ADA while the MARTA case fell under the very different provisions of Title II. Still, there is a fairly good chance that the issue appears to be destined for the U.S. Supreme Court where the outcome will determine whether the same law that requires movie theaters, department stores, and other public spaces to provide ramps and other accommodations for the disabled also applies to cyberspace. This paper explores the crucial issues implicated in recent court challenges to inaccessible websites and the resulting legal ramifications.

THE DISABLED AND THE DIGITAL DIVIDE

Computer use and Internet access are becoming increasingly commonplace in homes, at schools, and on the job. These information and communication tools are especially important for those who have physical or mental constraints, as these technologies can help overcome many of the challenges they face. Data from two important studies, "A Nation Online" by the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and "Who's Not Online" by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, show, however, that people with disabilities are less likely than the overall population to use computers or the Internet.

The "Nation Online" report was the first one to provide an in-depth assessment of the relationship of disabilities to the digital divide. The report noted that about 8.5% of the population suffered from at least one of five types of disabilities: severe vision impairment; severe hearing impairment; difficulty walking; difficulty typing; and difficulty leaving home. These disabilities became more prevalent with age--only 1.3% of children under 15 have at least one of the disabilities examined here, while almost 30% of the population aged 65 and older has at least one of these limitations.

Plus, the problem is more dramatic for individuals who are older. The NTIA report illustrated that less than 2% of those aged 3-24 had at least one of the five disabilities. While those with disabilities reported lower computer and Internet usage from home, computer and Internet use from other locations (such as school) evened out the disparity with the non-disabled. …

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