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Lawsuit attempts to force Web site accessibility

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I thought I had written the last of my articles on accessibility when I wrote about making your Web site accessible to all users, including those with disabilities. Then a news item captured my attention, and I thought it was worth one more article on the topic. This is one current event that should make all Web masters take notice.

On Oct. 18, a federal judge ruled that a civil case against Southwest Airlines should be dismissed. Southwest was sued by Access Now, a Florida not-for-profit corporation and advocate for the disabled community, and by Robert Gumson, a blind individual who had difficulty using Southwest's Web site to make travel plans. The plaintiffs claimed that Southwest's site was not accessible to people with disabilities. (Note: American Airlines is also being sued by Access Now. This recent dismissal covers only the lawsuit against Southwest Airlines.)

Under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), companies must make " a place of public accommodation " accessible to people with disabilities. Calling Southwest's e-commerce site Southwest.com a " virtual ticket counter, " the plaintiffs contended that the Web site did not fully accommodate Gumson's needs and therefore violated the law. Gumson uses a screen reader that converts onscreen text to speech to allow him to " read " a Web site. The plaintiffs argued that the site had not been programmed with alternative text that would work with Gumson's screen reader, thus denying him full access. Further, the complaints allege that because American and Southwest have special price offerings that are only available online, blind users who are denied access to these Web sites cannot take advantage of special fares when they make phone reservations.

The judge granted Southwest's motion for dismissal of the case, ruling that Southwest.com is not " a place of public accommodation as defined by the plain and unambiguous language of the ADA. " In essence, the judge says that cyberspace is not a physical, concrete place, which was the intended scope of the ADA.

This case came out in Southwest Airlines' favor - today. However, the company expended considerable time and money to defend itself in this lawsuit. What's more, the negative publicity couldn't have been good for the company.

Can your company be the next target of such a lawsuit? Yes, say the experts.

There are numerous lawsuits filed every year that allege violation of the ADA. Most are settled before they ever reach the courtroom. With the Internet becoming a haven for e-commerce, it was only a matter of time before a high-profile case emerged to challenge this " virtual world " and its compliance with accessibility laws. Earlier this year, Access Now sued Barnes & Noble and Claire's Stores alleging that both Web sites violated the ADA. Both cases settled out of court.

While the Web masters may be winning the battle, they also may be losing the war. When a Web site isn't fully accessible, it locks out a percentage of potential customers. It is estimated that there are 54 million Americans with disabilities. Can you afford to dismiss that many customers?

These lawsuits show that it's time for e-commerce sites, particularly those operated by large, deep-pocketed companies, to come into or stay ahead of compliance with Section 508 of the ADA. For more information on how to do this, consult my previous Technology Executive series of articles on accessibility (www.nwfusion.com/newsletters/techexec/). While the process of making your e-commerce site accessible may be time-consuming and expensive, the alternative (lawsuits) can be more so.

RELATED LINKS

Access Now

Southwest Airlines

Site accessibility for the disabled may be required
IT World.com, 10/16/02

The court's opinion in the Southwest case
Network World, 11/04/02

What users want from Microsoft
Network World, 11/04/02

IBM touts on-demand computing

Linda Musthaler is vice president of Currid & Company, a Houston-based information technology assessment company. You can reach her by e-mail at linda@currid.com.

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