Supreme Court lets blind man sue Domino's over website accessibility

By ignoring Domino's appeal, the Supreme Court opens up the door for lawsuits challenging websites and mobile apps that aren't accessible to people with disabilities.

Nearly 30 years ago, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) dictated that businesses must make their physical locations accessible to people with disabilities. On Tuesday, thanks to a decision from the Supreme Court, businesses may have to make their digital storefronts equally accessible. 

Specifically, the Supreme Court gave the green light for a blind man to sue Domino's Pizza over challenges he faced when trying to access the pizza chain's website and mobile app. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled earlier that the ADA applies to Domino's website and app, and that their alleged inaccessibility impeded blind customers from accessing the goods and services offered at physical Domino's franchises. 

The Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected an appeal from Domino's, letting the Ninth Circuit ruling stand. 

As noted in a brief filed with the Supreme Court, the Ninth Circuit's ruling represents the first time a federal court of appeals has ever decided whether Title III of the ADA applies to a business's website or mobile apps.

The case began with Guillermo Robles, a blind man who is proficient in using JAWS, or "Job Access With Speech" -- the most popular screen-reading software for Windows-based computers. To accommodate this kind of screen-reading software, graphics and embedded hyperlinks on websites typically include alternative text (known as "alt text") — a description of the image that appears when a cursor floats over it or screen-reading software detects it. 

As Robles' attorneys noted in their brief, most large businesses include alt text on their sites and follow other standards to ensure their websites and apps are accessible. However, the Domino's website did not have alt-text at the time Robles tried to use it. 

Meanwhile, Robles also connects to the internet via his iPhone with the help of Apple's Voice Over screen reading program, which is built into the operating system. However, the unlabeled buttons on the Domino's app did not conform to Apple's iOS accessibility guidelines, Robles' suit says. 

Robles says he tried several times to order customized pizzas using Domino's digital tools but was repeatedly stymied by their lack of accessibility features -- even though Domino's has long touted its cutting-edge digital services. 

Domino's, meanwhile, noted that this case has already prompted other plaintiffs "to deluge courts within the Ninth Circuit with accessibility suits." 

"This state of affairs perversely thwarts greater accessibility," attorneys for Domino's wrote in their brief to the Supreme Court. "Defendants settle or drop online offerings rather than shouldering heavy costs to achieve an elusive level of accessibility."  

Domino's also cited the support of the retail and restaurant industries, which in their own court filings "stress the impossibility of guessing what accessibility means in the online environment."

While the Supreme Court is letting the Ninth Circuit ruling stand, that doesn't mean the issue is settled. As Domino's noted, the number of web accessibility lawsuits has increased substantially in the last three years since Robles filed his suit. If another federal appeals court were to split from the Ninth Circuit ruling, the Supreme Court could decide to rule on the matter itself. 

Prior and related coverage: