Acting largely on procedural grounds, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday upheld a from October 2002, which concluded that Web sites cannot be required to comply with the 1991 disabilities law. An advocacy group for the blind had sued Southwest Airlines, seeking a redesign of its Web site.
Still, the three-judge panel noted that a future case could provide a vehicle for exploring the question in greater depth. "In declining to evaluate the merits of this case, we are in no way unmindful that the legal questions raised are significant," wrote Judge Stanley Marcus.
If the case had turned out differently, the outcome could have had far-reaching effects by imposing broad new requirements on companies hoping to do business online in states in the 11th Circuit, which includes Alabama, Florida and Georgia.
The ADA says that any "place of public accommodation" must be accessible to people with disabilities, and the law lists 12 categories, including hotels, restaurants, shopping centers, universities and bowling alleys. It does not name the Internet.
This lawsuit was filed by advocacy group Access Now and a blind man named Robert Gumson. They admitted that it was possible for the blind to buy tickets on Southwest's site but argued that it was "extremely difficult." 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.
Since the time the lawsuit was filed, Southwest appears to have redesigned its Web site to be easier to navigate for the blind. CNET News.com was able to make reservations using the Lynx text-only browser without encountering any compatibility or navigation problems.
Courts have reached different conclusions about whether the ADA might apply to the Web. The 7th Circuit suggested in 1999 that the ADA may apply to a Web site or other facilities that exist only electronically. But the Access Now v. Southwest case was the first to address the question directly.
At a February 2000 hearing, a board member of the National Federation of the Blind asked Congress to expand the ADA. "I urge this subcommittee to affirm the importance of access to this new world we're entering and to differentiate between the real-world needs of blind people and the hypothetical and yet-unproved burden placed on small businesses being required to ensure access," board member Gary Wunder said.
Last month, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines Working Group released an updated working draft of its extensive guidelines for online publishers. They suggest, for instance, text tags on graphical elements and captions accompanying a video clip in an online news story.