Is the Internet Public Space?


Maximum Accessibility: Making Your Web Site More Usable for Everyone
By John M. Slatin,, Sharron Rush
Table of Contents
Chapter 3.  Accessibility in Law and Policy

Now that we have seen some of the efforts that public institutions have made to establish commitment and develop policy, let's examine how policy is monitored and enforced.

Olympics Case Has International Consequences

As we saw above, Australia has a strong commitment to accessible information technology. In a 1999 lawsuit, Bruce Lindsay Maguire sued the Sydney Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games. On June 7, Maguire who is blind complained to the Commission that he was unlawfully discriminated against in three respects: the failure to provide Braille copies of the information required to place orders for Olympic Games tickets, the failure to provide Braille copies of the Olympic Games souvenir program, and the failure to provide a Web site that was accessible to the complainant. [9] Maguire sued under the provisions of the Australian DDA and in August 1999 the HREOC found in his favor. Although the designers of the site argued in court that it would take months and millions of dollars to remedy, once the ruling was handed down they managed it in days for an estimated cost of less than $30,000. [10]

[9] Accessed January 12, 2002, at

[10] Accessed January 12, 2002, at Magazine,

Maguire's victory established that Australia's DDA covers Web sites, and the precedent set by the decision has had consequences throughout the world. Unfortunately, as we will learn in Chapter 14, the Olympic Committee did not learn from its own experience, so it failed to create accessible online information in 2002. In the meantime, however, many public institutions and governments did respond favorably to the message delivered in this case and adopted useful measures to meet the needs of people with disabilities.

National Federation of the Blind Sues America Online for Access

While Australia considered the case of the Olympics, another landmark court case occurred in the United States. On November 4, 1999, the NFB sued AOL, asking that the courts declare that the Internet is a public space and therefore subject to the public accommodations rule of the ADA. Although the case was settled out of court, it raised questions that have yet to be fully addressed. Many people, including some within the community of people with disabilities, believed the lawsuit to be ill considered and feared that it might create backlash rather than solutions. Marc Maurer, President of the NFB, responded thus:

AOL has something in the neighborhood of twenty million subscribers. It has decided to become the company that will create the standard for providing information to the public. That standard excludes the blind. We have repeatedly asked in the past that this standard be modified to include blind participants. Sympathetic responses have been made, but modifications have not come.

How long should we wait?

How much patience should we have?

How much tolerance should the blind be expected to possess?

Why should other people have what the blind can never get?

We are not prepared to be shut out or ignored or intimi-dated or forgotten. If the information age is important (and we are repeatedly told that it is), we who are blind intend to be as much a part of it as anybody else. This is the message we sent through the filing of the lawsuit." [Maurer 2000, p. 4]

On July 26, 2000 the tenth anniversary of the passage of the ADA the NFB announced it would drop its suit against AOL in return for specific accommodations. AOL agreed to publish a policy on accessibility and make it an integral part of its service to consumers. This included the intent to create the means for screen readers and other technologies to interface with AOL's portal. The agreement provided one year to review the progress made and allows the federation to file suit again if problems remain.

Although there were no definitive court rulings, AOL's settlement included accessibility improvements to its system, and the NFB case generated increased interest in the applicability of nondiscrimination law to the Internet.

A Congressional hearing held on February 9, 2000, considered whether the ADA should apply to the Internet. After lengthy testimony, the subcommittee, chaired by Congressman Charles Canady (R-FL), concurred with the Justice Department. The conclusion stated that "the ADA does apply to the Internet, and . . . [due to] the substantial First Amendment implications of an application of the ADA to the Internet, the development of a legislative record on these issues now would likely prove valuable to all interested parties." [11]

[11] House Subcommittee Hearing Committee Transcript, February 9, 2000. Accessed May 17, 2002, at

By early 2001, Maurer was able to say in a progress report, "the currently distributed version of the AOL access system is, in many respects, usable by the blind. In other words, progress is being made. A great deal of work remains, but much has been accomplished."

Who Needs Accommodation?

According to census data, more than 750 million people worldwide have disabilities, and those numbers are increasing as the population ages. These data also show that people with disabilities, as a group, continue to occupy an inferior status in society and are severely disadvantaged socially, vocationally, economically, and educationally.

The ADA, the DDA in Britain and Australia, and other initiatives throughout the world have completely redefined society's responsibility to this population. The potential now exists and is supported by advances in technology to fully include people with disabilities in societal opportunities and to finally change that status.

What Is Accessible Information Technology?

As defined by both the WAI and the Section 508 standards, an accessible information technology system is one that can be operated in a variety of ways and does not rely on a single sense or ability of the user. For example, a system that provides output only in visual format will not be accessible to people with visual impairments, and a system that provides output only in audio format will not be accessible to people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Some individuals with disabilities may need accessibility-related software or peripheral devices (commonly referred to as assistive technology or AT) in order to use Web pages and systems that comply with standards. These may include text-to-speech mechanisms, alternative navigation systems such as joysticks, magnification tools, or any of a host of software and hardware devices. It is important to note, however, that not all accessibility issues involve the use of AT. Navigation systems, color choices, and flashing content are among the elements that can cause access barriers to users who do not employ AT at all.


    Maximum Accessibility(c) Making Your Web Site More Usable for Everyone
    Maximum Accessibility: Making Your Web Site More Usable for Everyone: Making Your Web Site More Usable for Everyone
    ISBN: 0201774224
    EAN: 2147483647
    Year: 2002
    Pages: 128

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