Judge: Disabilities Act doesn't cover Web

Mark , Christina and Adam are discussing this troubling US court ruling affecting accessibility of web sites. This article in news.com covers the ruling.

    A federal judge ruled Friday that Southwest Airlines does not have to revamp its Web site to make it more accessible to the blind.

    In the first case of its kind, U.S. District Judge Patricia Seitz said the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies only to physical spaces, such as restaurants and movie theaters, and not to the Internet.

Apparently the ADA laws only apply to meatspace. It's a shame, because the Internet should make mobility more possible for people with disabilities, but far too often the barriers of legacy web design and poorly executed information architectures keep people from using the web efficiently. You'd think a large airline would want to make it easier for this population to buy tickets online.

    Gumson, who said he had a screen reader with a voice synthesizer on his computer, asked the judge to order Southwest to provide text that could serve as an alternative to the graphics on its site and to redesign the site's navigation bar to make it easier for him to understand.
Sounds like the fixes could be minor and relatively inexpensive. Better labelling and standards compliant markup might help in this instance. More companies should just work with users on these fixable problems. In the end the benefit will outweigh the cost of bad publicity. All it really takes is getting the right people in the discussion. No doubt lawyers and PR people were the main players, but what do they know about accessible design?

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Yeah, but...

I agree with Marks points-- the judge and ADA opponents made some questionable comments. But, I believe the judge's overall ruling was correct (even if I don't quite follow the line of reasoning). I think it would be dangerous for the courts (or the legislature) to mandate that companies make their sites accessible without taking into account the relative size of the impaired user base and other reasonable accommodations made by companies.
Access to a physical space is very different from access to information. If I want to eat at a particular restaurant, I must go to that restaurant. However, if I want to get information on my health plan coverage, for example, I can acqure that information in multiple ways: web site, interactive voice response, live customer service rep, hard copies, etc.
If a visually impaired person cannot use a particular site, and if the company in question offers that person access to the same information or services via a customer service rep, then the company has made reasonable accomodations. I think that is the key issue with Southwest-- the low fares were apparently internet-only.
I believe that accessibility is important and agree that web standards, content management systems, etc. will make it easier to make sites accessible. However, making a site (especially a large site) accessible is not necessarily a trivial matter-- you can't just add a few ALT tags and call it a day.
For businesses to take action on web site accessibility there must be a business driver. Businesses will make their sites accessible when there is significant customer demand (i.e., a group of impaired users that is significant relative to a company's overall target market).
Smart companies will place some relative low cost fixes into place sooner rather than later, then include accessibility as a design mandate for the next major redesign.