What the Blick Art Materials Case Means for Corporate Website Accessibility

October 5, 2017 BY PATRICK LOFTUS
Updated: February 23, 2021

On August 1, a judge in the Eastern District of New York allowed a class action website accessibility lawsuit against Blick Art Materials, LLC to move forward marking a big win for disability rights advocates.

The plaintiff, who himself happens to be blind, claims in the lawsuit that the company’s website DickBlick.com, is “difficult, if not impossible” for blind customers to use, citing “many access barriers preventing blind people to independently navigate and complete a purchase” such as reliance on “an exclusively visual interface, including pop-up forms that are inaccessible.”

Interpreting the Law for Today’s Tech

The lawsuit claims that Blick is in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to include accessibility features on its online store and excluding blind customers from participating in e-commerce.

The ‘broad mandate’ of the ADA and its ‘comprehensive character’ are resilient enough to keep pace with the fact that the virtual reality of the Internet is almost as important now as physical reality alone was when the statute was signed into law.

Judge Jack Weinstein
Andrews v. Blick Art Materials

The ADA is a civil rights law that prevents discrimination on the basis of disability and institutes accessibility requirements on public accommodations. Because the law was passed in 1990, before the internet was as integral to participating in society as it is today, websites are not directly mentioned in the language of the ADA.

In a victory for web accessibility advocates, the overseeing judge Jack Weisenstein — who is 96 years old — denied Blick’s motion to dismiss the case and argued for a broad and contemporary interpretation of the ADA.

On her blog, disability rights lawyer Lainey Feingold (who talked about the Blick case in a recent webinar) shared the judge’s words of support for the ADA’s application to websites.

Today, internet technology enables individuals to participate actively in their community and engage in commerce from the comfort and convenience of their home. It would be a cruel irony to adopt the interpretation of the ADA espoused by Blick, which would render the legislation intended to emancipate the disabled from the bonds of isolation and segregation obsolete when its objective is increasingly within reach.

free white paper: How the ADA Impacts Online Video Accessibility

A lot of criticism about the ADA’s application to the internet often cites its ambiguity as a factor in determining whether or not websites need to legally be made accessible.

Judge Weisenstein instead counters that logic by claiming a lack of technologically specific language in the ADA doesn’t demonstrate ambiguity — it demonstrates breadth. The ADA, he suggests, should therefore apply to today’s realities in the context of how much we rely on internet technology.

Blick’s suggested construction of Title III would contravene the ADA’s broad remedial purpose. Its view would exempt a huge — and growing — swath of mainstream American life based on the Internet from the Act’s requirements. The “broad mandate” of the ADA and its “comprehensive character” are resilient enough to keep pace with the fact that the virtual reality of the Internet is almost as important now as physical reality alone was when the statute was signed into law. That the meteoric rise of virtual reality through the Internet and its impact on communal and commercial affairs could not have been anticipated by Congress does not mean the law’s application to the Internet and website is ambiguous; “the fact that a statute can be applied in situations not expressly anticipated by Congress does not demonstrate ambiguity. It demonstrates breadth.

What It All Means for Corporate Website Accessibility

Andrews vs. Blick Art Materials is the latest in a growing list of accessibility lawsuits in which websites are considered “places of public accommodation.” This case, coupled with the recent Winn-Dixie ruling, tells us that it is much safer for corporations to ensure their websites are fully accessible to all users right now rather than downplay the risk of a potential accessibility lawsuit.

This trend in judicial statements and rulings over web accessibility is a sign that future lawsuits over website accessibility are much more likely to end up in a verdict stemming from a broader interpretation of the ADA that favors the rights of people with disabilities. The argument that we need to wait for more legislation that addresses websites as places of public accommodation is beginning to wither.

Additionally, e-commerce or online retail is increasingly becoming the preferred method of shopping. Especially for those who are blind or have low vision, it makes so much sense that websites like DickBlick.com should be built with accessibility in mind because it would be ideal for them to shop independently from the comfort of their own home rather than physically go shopping at a physical store.

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