The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 has gone a long way toward giving people with disabilities equal access to the comforts and services of modern U.S. culture. As a recent lawsuit demonstrates, however, a number of legal questions surrounding website accessibility and telephone hotlines under the ADA remain to be settled.
Title III of the ADA requires that people with disabilities must be able to access “places of public accommodation.” Although this phrase has applied to physical locations such as hotels, restaurants, and swimming pools, it's also been proven that an organization’s website can be defined as a “place of public accommodation.” Judges have followed multiple lines of reasoning to prove this point in recent years.
The plaintiff in the case of Gorecki v. Dave & Buster’s, Inc., Sean Gorecki, is permanently blind and uses screen reader software to access the internet. In 2016, he discovered that many of the restaurant and entertainment chain Dave & Buster’s online features were incompatible with his screen reader, including elements such as the website’s home page, directions function, and menus. As a result, he filed an accessibility lawsuit against the company that is currently under the consideration of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.
Dave & Buster’s had previously filed a motion for summary judgment; in other words, the defendant asked the court to rule that the plaintiff had no case. The defendant’s lawyers argued that the Dave & Buster’s website had already included text to accommodate people using screen readers, redirecting them to an accessible telephone hotline. The website text read: “If You Are Using A Screen Reader and Are Having Problems Using This Website, Please Call (888) 300-1515 For Assistance.”
However, in an October 2017 ruling, the court found that the defendant had not conclusively proven that the hotline text itself was readable by screen readers. In its judgment, the court cited a 2010 document from the U.S. Department of Justice stating that “a staffed telephone line” is “an accessible alternative” for an insufficiently accessible website, but wasn’t convinced that Dave & Buster’s had met that mark.
What This Ruling Means for Website Accessibility
The dismissal of the Dave & Buster’s motion might not seem all that exciting in itself, but it represents an important milestone: It was the first federal court decision to adopt the Department of Justice’s suggestion of telephonic access as an alternative to website accessibility. The court took issue with the fact that screen readers might have missed the text notifying users about the hotline — not the fact that Dave & Buster’s was using a hotline in the first place. As such, this ruling, and perhaps the final decision in the case when it arrives, constitute a potential precedent for other ADA cases to adopt the Department of Justice’s endorsement of telephonic access.
Why Telephonic Access Shouldn’t Replace Website Accessibility
Telephonic access can be a strong bandage or stopgap measure for businesses that don’t have an accessible website. For example, telephonic access is a good temporary solution to accessibility for consumer-facing websites that seek to provide straightforward information.
However, telephonic access is not appropriate for websites that go beyond a simple “portal” functionality, such as websites that change frequently or that have large amounts of content to search through. What’s more, since websites can be accessed outside normal business hours, any such telephone hotline would have to be staffed 24/7 to provide true accessibility, which is an expensive proposition.
For these reasons — the difficulty of replicating all the functionalities of more complex websites, the potential expense involved in doing so, and the lingering legal questions — telephonic access generally isn’t an adequate permanent fix or alternative to investing in a truly accessible website.