The Internet Is a Necessity

And Web accessibility for the disabled makes sense for everyone.

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez. Photo by Thinkstock

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez. Photo by Thinkstock

Last month FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly told us the Internet is “not a necessity.”

At a speech to the Internet Innovation Alliance, an organization that promotes broadband accessibility, O’Rielly said people “can and do” live without Internet access. “Instead,” he offered, “the term necessity should be reserved to those items that humans cannot live without such as food, shelter, and water.”

When he made this statement, the commissioner was presumably thinking of the parts of life online that sometimes irk us: teens’ eyes locked on their smartphones, the innumerable cat videos, polarizing rants of political candidates and other talking heads on social media. His understanding appears to be based on Vint Cerf’s feeling that technology “is an enabler of rights, not a right itself.”

But the Internet is increasingly about essential life needs, especially when it comes to access to employment, government services, health care, and education. Try applying for a job or enrolling at a local college or university without a broadband connection, and you’ll run into trouble.  

A similar problem confronts many people who try to use websites that don’t have the kind of code that makes them accessible—what developers call “universal design.” In a recent study by Jonathan Lazar, professor of computer and information sciences at Towson University, only 28 percent of blind applicants were able to complete online job applications because many of the sites in the study didn’t use standards of accessible Web design. In February the National Association of the Deaf sued Harvard and MIT for discriminating against deaf and hard of hearing people by failing to caption the online content they make available to the general public, including massive open online courses, aka MOOCs. Without a job or the education to make employment possible, disabled communities are increasingly at risk of losing the essential life needs—“food, water, and shelter”—that O’Rielly outlined.

So access is quickly becoming mandatory. And that’s a problem, because as access becomes more integral to the essentials of everyday American life, the gap between those who have access to the Internet and to its content—and those who don’t—grows. This gap can be significant. People with perceptual disabilities, such as those who are deaf or blind, require websites to provide closed captioning or to be flexible enough to work well with screen reader technology. Websites also need to be compatible with alternate input devices—such as speech recognition or eye tracking—so that those with motor disabilities can use them.

Several laws require accessibility for the disabled, but perhaps the best known is the Americans With Disabilities Act. This month the United States will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the ADA. The ADA was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990, to “ensure that people with disabilities are given the basic guarantees for which they have worked so long and so hard: independence, freedom of choice, control of their lives, the opportunity to blend fully and equally into the rich mosaic of the American mainstream.”

Title III of the ADA requires that public and private establishments provide reasonable accommodations to the disabled. While there are 12 specifically mentioned “places of public accommodation” listed in the statute, access to the Internet is conspicuously missing—mainly because the Internet of 1990 is not the Internet we rely on today. Establishing the Internet as a “place of public accommodation” has been a story of two steps forward, one step back. But that is changing, thanks to a new generation of ADA activists who won’t accept a second-class Internet.

This past spring the Justice Department was expected to advance rulemaking on Web accessibility for all sites under the ADA. Those rules would have outlined accessibility standards for private websites under the ADA. But that stalled—again. However, accessibility standards are in place for government-run and government-funded sites under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act (with revised standards set to take effect later this year), and the DOJ has publicly stated that it views the Internet as a “place of public accommodation.” In the past year and a half, the DOJ put more muscle into that view by filing statements of interest in the Harvard and MIT lawsuit and another lawsuit involving Lucky Brand jeans.

In the Harvard and MIT case, the Justice Department squarely stated that the ADA and other federal laws obligate the universities “to provide effective communication to ensure equal access” to online courses. In the other case, a blind plaintiff is suing Lucky Jeans for failing to provide an accessible touchscreen device for swiping his debit card to purchase clothing. In its statement, the DOJ argues that Lucky Jeans is obligated to provide the accommodation despite the fact that such a device is not specifically mentioned in Title III of the ADA. It also endorses the idea that the Internet should be considered a place of public accommodation, saying: “[T]he Department has long considered websites to be covered by Title III despite the fact that there are no specific technical requirements for websites currently in the regulation or ADA Standards.”

One recent district court ruling from Vermont also shows promise for supporting the Internet as a place of public accommodation under the ADA. But since 1990, appeals courts have been divided on the issue of whether the ADA applies to nonphysical structures, like the Internet.  We’re likely to hear more about the case in Vermont; it has moved into the discovery phase after the court allowed an ADA Web accessibility claim against the digital library and e-book subscription service Scribd to proceed.

It’s time for the DOJ, Congress, and all of us to prioritize Web accessibility. This is not just about doing the right thing for the disabled. (Indeed, many who identify as today’s ADA generation are not particularly interested in being the stars of our charity narratives.) Web accessibility for the disabled makes sense for a number of key social and economic reasons:

  1. Web accessibility is something we all want and need. According the National Council on Disability, about 25 percent of people will acquire a disability at some point in their lives—yet when polled, only 2 percent of Americans think it will ever happen to them. The point here is Web accessibility is something we all will want and need—at the very least, we will have a family member who will want and need it. The disability community doesn’t always embrace this phrase, but we are all “temporarily abled.”
  2. It makes good business sense. Researchers and developers argue there are numerous downstream advantages to designing accessible sites. Much like wheelchair ramps and elevators benefit parents with strollers, Web accessibility will benefit all of us, particularly in mobile (think screen readers, natural-language voice tools like Siri, closed captioning, etc.). Web accessibility, developers say, is a form of innovation that helps to drive development. It also attracts new customers and offers employers the chance to consider disabled workers in their hiring decisions.
  3. Standards for Web accessibility aren’t new—they’ve been around for 16 years. Simply forgetting to consider accessibility from the outset should no longer be an excuse. Small efforts—like adjusting colors of hyperlinks for the colorblind or labeling graphics with alt text, which gives a text description of an image—can go a long way. The Web Accessibility Initiative has been championing this cause for some time. Costs for accessibility vary, but we’re talking about an additional 2 percent in development costs if you plan at the outset, according to Jonathan Lazar, the Towson professor who has been studying Web accessibility issues for 15 years. (And yes, some exceptions will need to be made, just as exceptions exist in real-space accessibility. But the point is we need a baseline.)
  4. We’re missing a hugely important voice in society. When we don’t include disabled communities in arguments about health care, the economy, parenting, and more, we miss important viewpoints. In addition, disability activists are mobilizing online in ways that weren’t always previously possible, and they are talking to one another across disabilities and on platforms that need accessible standards to do that. We need to support that communication across and among disability groups with accessible standards.

There is a reason we talk about “life online.” O’Rielly’s comments notwithstanding, the time has come to fully include disabled communities in the necessities of that life. 

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.