How do Federal Courts Apply ADA Accommodation Rules to Websites?

Published January 8, 2024

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a cornerstone of equal access for individuals with disabilities. In an increasingly digital world, accessibility isn't just about physical spaces. It extends to the virtual realm as well, including websites. 

However, the actual obligations of websites have been the center of some debate in ADA cases. In particular, whether a website is a place of public accommodation. And in these ADA cases, federal courts differ in their approaches to this debate.

This blog post delves into how federal courts apply ADA accommodation rules to websites.

Web accessibility and its relevance

Web accessibility refers to designing and developing online content that people with disabilities can perceive, navigate, and interact with effectively. This concept is grounded in the principle that everyone should have equal access to online information and services, regardless of their abilities. 

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are the gold standard for web accessibility, providing a comprehensive framework to enhance the usability of websites for all users. These guidelines are categorized into four principles: perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. Each principle correlates with specific success criteria that detail the technical requirements for making a website accessible. For instance, providing alternative text for images, ensuring keyboard navigation, and creating adaptable content are among the many criteria that contribute to a more accessible online experience.

Understanding the ADA and its scope

Enacted in 1990, the ADA aimed to eliminate discrimination against people with disabilities in various facets of life. Title III of the ADA, which pertains to public accommodations, has been at the center of the discussion on website accessibility. 

According to the ADA, places of public accommodation refer to “A facility operated by a private entity whose operations affect commerce.”  In other words, they are facilities that businesses or organizations use to conduct business with the public. Examples include places of lodging, restaurants, exercise facilities, and many others.

But this list primarily contains examples of physical places of public accommodation, and the role of websites isn’t clearly defined. This is because the ADA was enacted before the internet became ubiquitous. As such, courts have grappled with its application to the virtual world.

ADA Title III and digital accessibility

Whether Title III of the ADA extends to websites has been a subject of debate and litigation. While the ADA does not explicitly mention websites, courts have grappled with interpreting the law in the context of the digital age. One of the central issues is whether websites can be considered places of public accommodation as stipulated by the ADA. This lack of clear regulations has resulted in varying interpretations across different jurisdictions.

As it stands, federal courts are split on how to determine a website's obligations, taking a broad interpretation of public accommodations on one end and a narrow interpretation on the other. 

Broad accommodation interpretation

One way that courts determine the public accommodation requirements of websites is through a broad interpretation of the definition of place of public accommodation. This interpretation holds that websites are public accommodations within the ADA definition. 

According to an opinion issued by the California Court of Appeals in the Martinez v. Cot’n Wash Inc. case, this interpretation holds that Congress would have intended public accommodations to include non-physical facilities such as websites. According to this view, to think otherwise would be irrational.

Courts following this view also emphasize the importance of websites in participating in modern daily life. They believe that Congress intended the ADA to adapt to changes in technology. 

A representative example is Robles v. Domino’s Pizza. This case found that the pizza chain’s website was a place of public accommodation, and its incompatibility with screen readers was therefore a violation of ADA Title III.

Narrow accommodation interpretation

The second approach to website obligation involves a narrow interpretation of what constitutes a place of public accommodation. In this interpretation, Websites are not places of public accommodation. However, denial of equal access to a website can support an ADA claim if this denial has prevented or impeded a disabled plaintiff's equal access to the goods/services provided at the defendant’s physical locations. 

This view also recognizes that a website can be essential to providing access to the services provided at physical locations. ADA claims can therefore be actionable under a nexus theory to the extent that an inaccessible website can impede a plaintiff's ability to enjoy the same kind of services offered at the place of public accommodation

This view is complex in its own right, as it doesn’t necessarily refute that websites have obligations, but, specifically, there must be a physical location tied to that website.

An example of this view prevailing is in the case of Martinez v. Cot’n Wash Inc. This case found favor with the defendant because, although its site was inaccessible, it was an exclusively online business. It, therefore, had no physical location and was thus not a place of public accommodation.


In the world of ADA litigation, the obligations of websites remain a fairly complex debate. On the one hand, some federal courts are willing to embrace the idea that websites are, in fact, places of public accommodation and wish to hold them accountable as such. Other courts are more hesitant and will only allow it under specific conditions. 

Until the role of websites is solidified in disability legislation, it is up to the courts to use their discretion to ensure that websites remain accessible. It is also vital that users and businesses understand this dynamic so they can better understand their rights and their obligations.


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