Why the ADA Doesn’t Say Anything about the Internet

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Website accessibility lawsuits are increasing exponentially each year. Domino’s even petitioned the Supreme Court of the United States to hear their case and rule on whether their website is required to be accessible. The Supreme Court denied their petition. All of these lawsuits have many people asking why the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) doesn’t say anything about websites, apps, and their required level of accessibility.

1990's technology: large and small video tapes, VCR, audio receiver, and remote

Jump in the Wayback Machine

The first President Bush, George H. W., signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law on July 26, 1990. Needless to say, the world was a very different place then.

Think about it; what were you doing in 1990? Were you even alive? (That’s a fair question since that’s nearly 30 years ago!)

Just for fun, let’s take a trip back to 1990:

  • The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, In Living Color, and Law & Order (yes, it’s been on that long) first aired
  • Several “classic” movies hit theaters including Home Alone and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
  • Joe Montana was the sportsperson of the year
  • The official demolition of the Berlin Wall began which reunited East and West Germany
  • The average monthly rent was $465
  • A gallon of gas cost $1.34
  • You could get an IBM PS1 computer for the low price of $999 to $1,999

Oh! Let’s revisit that last little nugget of information. A computer cost $2000! That’s more than four times the average monthly rent in 1990. Computers weren’t a common household item back then. That’s probably part of the reason why the ADA doesn’t have clear verbiage for website accessibility.

So, we know that computers weren’t a household item in 1990 but, were people buzzing about the internet? Nope; just Al Gore. Kidding! But what talk, if any, was there about the internet around the time the ADA was signed into law?

Close-up of the bottom right corner of a vintage Macintosh monitor and blurred out floppy disk

“The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.”

—Tim Berners-Lee, W3C Director and inventor of the World Wide Web

The Internet is Coming

In 1990, the extremely brilliant Tim Berners-Lee created the foundation for the internet at the European Council for Nuclear Research (CERN) (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire in French). His original goal was to create an easy way for scientists and universities to share information all across the world. He recognized the possibility of commercial use but kept his focus on sharing information between scientists.

The World Wide Web wasn’t available for use outside CERN until 1991; the year after the ADA was signed into law. And, even then it wasn’t the internet we know today. In fact, internet browsers were text-only for the first couple of years. It wasn’t until 1993 that the first web browser that could display images, Mosaic, launched. 

What we’re trying to say is that the web as we know it wasn’t even conceivable in 1990. And, if it was, it was a work of science fiction. The social media, fake news, 2-day delivery internet that we know and love (ha!) today wasn’t a thing.

In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act addressed the needs of the time and the internet wasn’t part of those needs.

Cassette tape with some of the tape pulled out

Show Me the Updates

The ADA has undergone a few revisions in its lifetime but not many. Most of the revisions pertain to transportation. There were also revisions expanding the definition of “disability” (thanks to the ADA Amendments Act of 2008) and equal opportunity employment. But, there haven’t been any updates specifically about the accessibility of digital information for people with disabilities. Why? Because, if you really look at it, the ADA already covers website and app accessibility. 

Title III of the ADA speaks most clearly to businesses like the aforementioned Domino’s. It states that businesses not receiving federal funding can’t discriminate based on someone’s disability. These businesses have to grant access to information, goods, and services to everyone regardless of their ability. And, since the verbiage in Title III is broad, a business also can’t discriminate against people with disabilities on their websites or apps, either. Businesses provide information, goods, and services to people without disabilities so, by law, they can’t discriminate against people with disabilities by not allowing them to view their website.

Fun logic, huh?

So, while the ADA doesn’t have language that addresses the internet’s accessibility directly, it does have language that applies to the accessibility of websites and apps.

Spirit of the ADA

It’s time to stop complaining about not having specific guidelines and focus our efforts on upholding the ADA’s original intent: inclusion. Let’s open our websites, apps, and all other digital content to everyone. In short, we can’t wait to see your accessibility efforts and how it changes the lives of people with disabilities for the better.

‘90s Resources:

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This post was written by Jessica Sanders

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