Are websites public spaces?

The issue can’t escape mention, even though it’s a few days late. Robert Gumson and Access Now recently launched a suit against Southwest Airlines, claiming that Southwest’s website was inaccessible to the blind, thus was in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Last Friday, a U.S. District Judge in Florida dismissed the accessibility suit, [.pdf, 1.0 MB] stating the ADA is only applicable to physical spaces like office buildings and restaurants, and does not apply to the Web.

I see both sides of this case and don’t have a solid opinion on which way it should have gone. However, I think the quick dismissal is an unfortunate tough blow to accessibility initiatives on the Web. Legal issues aside, cases like this set precedents, influencing actions and behavior of corporate America. Dismiss the legal issue, and it gives corporate management an immediate excuse to dismiss any up-front effort at making their websites more accessible. Are company websites public spaces? Should they fall under the same rules as physical public spaces? Think about the wheelchair ramps at the corners of every intersection in major cities. Was that an easy task? Of course not. Speaking from very recent experience, I know the task of changing large-scale websites to make them accessible can’t be trivialized. But small incremental improvements can be made without tons of cost and effort. It’s the right thing to do, and it even makes pure business sense to make these changes. I agree with WAI director, Judy Brewer, in a statement quoted in Declan’s article reporting the court decision:

“In this day and age, Web sites are one of the most significant public faces of any organization,” … “Any business that pretends otherwise has cut off its nose to spite its face — not only for their loss of millions of potential customers with disabilities, but loss of users of mobile phones, PDAs and other devices best supported by accessible Web design.”

From a different angle, I often think that too many people in this country abuse our legal system, filing frivolous suits which should never see the light of day in a court of law. They water down and obscure the real issues that need attention. I don’t know if this was a valid case to bring before the court. I certainly wouldn’t say this was one of the frivolous cases, because there are important issues at stake here. However, it seems handling this issue outside of the courts may have produced better results without the drama. Companies need to be educated on the benefits of making websites accessible. Teach them what can be done, and give them a chance to change before taking them to court. But maybe that already happened in this Southwest case, or maybe I’m just a naive idealist.