Website owners beware – a federal judge in Vermont recently ruled that a company selling its products exclusively through a website, with no physical store, may be a place of public accommodation under the ADA and if so it must accomodate visually impaired customers.
In National Fed. of the Blind v. Scribd, Inc., No. 14-CV-162 (D. Vt. March 19, 2015), the National Federal of the Blind (the “Federation”) filed suit against a company that operates an online bookstore (Scribd, Inc. ) for failing to provide a public accommodation to visually impaired customers. Scribd moved to dismiss, asserting that its website is not a place of public accommodation.
Scribd users can download digital and audio books off of its online bookstore for a monthly fee. Once downloaded, visually impaired customers can access the online books through programs that convert visual information into audio or Braille formats. These programs only work, however, after the online books are downloaded. Visually impaired readers have no way to browse through Scribd’s different online books prior to purchase and download.
Title III of the ADA provides that “[n]o individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation.” The statute defines “public accommodation” by reference to a list of “entities” that affect interstate commerce, including “a  library, gallery” and… other place[s] of exhibition or entertainment… other sales or rental establishment[s]… [and] other places of public display or collection.” Ultimately, the jury will decide whether this online bookstore is, in fact, a “public accommodation.”
The Judge in the Sbribd case concluded that “[i]nternet is central to every aspect of the economic and social mainstream of American life… [and excluding online businesses] from the ADA would… severely frustrate Congress’s intent that individuals with disabilities fully enjoy [goods and services] indiscriminately…” As technology continues to advance, companies are replacing the high cost of retail stores with online-only shopping.
While this decision is not the end of the conversation, it is important that companies are aware that the ADA may apply to their on-line business.