For Americans with Disabilities, Court Fights for Equality Ensnared in Internet Loopholes
The popular website eBay is a boon for amateur sellers, creating a digital economy where individuals can freely exchange resources. But it has also become a source of controversy for patrons like Melissa Earll, a deaf woman who is unable to sell her extensive collection of sports memorabilia due to eBay’s verification system, which requires sellers to retrieve passwords via telephone call.
“Ebay keeps me from taking advantage of the opportunities that other people have and it’s because I couldn’t hear,” Earll told WDAF-TV news in early January.
Earll filed suit against eBay in response, alleging that the company violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by not providing adequate accommodations for her hearing impairment.
U.S. District Judge Edward DaVila dismissed the complaint in May 2012, however, stating in his order that Earll’s case “does not sufficiently plead intentional discrimination” under the ADA.
The issue is the act itself, which states that no individual with a disability can be discriminated against within a “place of public accommodation,” and includes a list of physical locations that fit this criterion. Notably missing from the list is any mention of digital forums, as the act was passed in 1990, years before the rise of the internet age.
Courts have been split regarding the act’s subsequent interpretation, with some holding that the internet counts as a “place of public accommodation.” One example of this is Netflix, which was forced to pay $755,000 in legal fees and provide captions on its streaming content in response to a suit brought by the National Association for the Deaf in June of 2012.
“According to precedence, ebay would also be a place of public accommodation and should ensure all content is 100 percent accessible as well,” says Jennah Bedrosian, policy and strategy associate for the American Association of People with Disabilities.
As online commerce continues to take ever larger shares of the economy, concerns over website accessibility will endure. A proposal to amend the ADA “to establish requirements for making … sites on the World Wide Web accessible to individuals with disabilities” was offered by the Justice Department in 2010, though it has not been implemented yet.
Earll’s case also highlights able-bodied culture, which views physical and mental disabilities as an error that individuals should learn to overcome. Several laws including the ADA have been passed to combat this perception, but they often lag behind a rapidly advancing technological society that does not pause for legal updates.
“[I]t should be a no brainer that online businesses should be 100 percent accessible,” Bedrosian told Campus Progress. “It's time that all businesses joined the 21st century and provided these simple accommodations.”
Jenn Nowicki is a reporter for Generation Progress.