When you think about the obligation to make a “place of public accommodation” accessible to individuals with disabilities, it is likely that you primarily think about access to physical, concrete structures such as ramp access for ingress and egress, changes to restroom facilities, and access to aisles, counters or other office spaces. However, a quickly emerging issue under the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”) is whether virtual spaces such as your company’s website will now be held to the same accessibility standards.
Most of you provide information about your company to your employees through an internal web-based portal, and may even offer information, goods and services to the general consuming public through an Internet web site. While you must ensure that your internal postings (ranging from policy announcements, summaries of benefits, and job/position opportunities) do not unintentionally create a disparate impact on disabled employees, the focus of this post is on the latter situation when the general public’s access to your website is involved. That is, Title III of the ADA governs “places of accommodation”, and requires that such places provide equal access for disabled individuals.
In the ever burgeoning world of social media, courts have started to consider a company’s website to be a “place of accommodation” in increasing numbers. As a result, your company could be held liable for violating the ADA if your website does not provide equal access for the disabled. In an attempt to help bridge the gap between current regulation of physical structures, on the one hand, and virtual spaces such as websites on the other, the United States Department of Justice (“DOJ”) has solicited the public’s comments to its notice of proposed rulemaking. The proposed rules attempt to “establish requirements for making the goods, services, facilities, privileges, accommodations, or advantages offered by public accommodations via the Internet, specifically at sites on the World Wide Web, accessible to individuals with disabilities.”
It is likely that the statutes and regulations prohibiting disability discrimination will ultimately be applied to acts and statements in social media. It is not a stretch, therefore, to believe that courts will continue to apply accessibility obligations to virtual places of public accommodation. In that vein, you should not neglect to consider ADA accommodation issues in the context of your company’s website. The public comment period for the DOJ’s notice will expire early next year, after which the DOJ will likely issue its new regulations.
Employer Take Away: What should you as an employer take away from this development?
(1) Conduct an effective impact audit of any internal web-based portals or intranet sites that your company currently uses to post information to your employees, to ensure that the site does not disparately impact disabled employees.
(2) Make sure that online applications and other hiring-related descriptions, information and processes meet acceptable accessibility standards, including the elimination of any language barriers and improvement of document accessibility.
(3) Consider whether other changes should be made to your website to comport with accessibility standards, such as text aides for graphic and visual material, the ability of users to engage in keyboard navigation, rather than being required to use a mouse, and making your website compatible with software such as “screen reader” that will allow users to convert graphic and textual information into speech that a synthesized “voice” reads out through a user’s computer speakers.