Riccobono and others argue they are often unable to access important health or financial information and social or employment opportunities online. In short, they say they get shut out of living. And that’s unnerving for plaintiffs like Heidi Viens, a blind single parent, who wanted to access online books to read to her sighted 4-year-old daughter.
Sometimes, “it’s almost like looking at a roadmap with no labels on the road,” says Viens, who was blinded in an accident 14 years ago, when she was 22. Other times, she says, “there are all the roads, but I don’t know which one I’m supposed to take.”
Viens and the NFB sued Scribd under the ADA, alleging that the site, which provides access to more than 40 million titles including ebooks, academic papers, and legal filings, violated Title III of the ADA because its website and mobile apps were inaccessible. Last month, a U.S. district court in Vermont ruled for the plaintiffs and refused to dismiss the lawsuit. The court found that Scribd’s services fell within a least one of the statute’s categories as a place of exhibition or entertainment, a sales or rental establishment, a service establishment, a library, a gallery, or a place of public display or collection.
“Now that the Internet plays such a critical role in the personal and professional lives of Americans, excluding disabled persons from access to covered entities that use it as their principal means of reaching the public would defeat the purpose of this important civil rights legislation,” wrote Judge William K. Sessions III.
“What made this decision particularly valuable was not just that the court said that the ADA applies to e-commerce but that the court did that by recognizing the very elastic nature that was intended by Congress when it enacted the ADA,” said Daniel F. Goldstein, who represented the plaintiffs in the case. “The ADA as it was structured was truly intended to be a comprehensive mandate to integrate people with disabilities into mainstream life.”
Scribd has filed an appeal. In the meantime, a spokeswoman said the company is working on accessibility refinements, but that there is little legal guidance on what is required. The DOJ is expected to advance rule-making on accessibility guidelines for companies like Scribd later this spring.
The ruling in Vermont was the second within the past few years to broadly read the ADA, a view that the disabled say is supported by the act’s legislative history and the Department of Justice’s position that the ADA applies to the Internet and web-based goods and service providers. In National Association of the Deaf (NAD) v. Netflix, a U.S. district court in Massachusetts ruled that the statute should be read to include the Internet as a place of public accommodation. In that 2012 case, the NAD argued that Netflix, denied deaf subscribers equal enjoyment and access to its site by limiting closed captioning to a few movie selections.