Future Tense

Domino’s Wants to Slice Away at the Americans With Disabilities Act

The possibility that the Supreme Court might decide that Domino’s doesn’t have to make its website accessible fills me with dread—and not because I love its pizza.

Photo illustration of pepperoni pizza, with a mouse cursor replacing one slice of pizza.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock and Arx0nt/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Update, Oct. 7, 2019, 3:45 p.m.: The Supreme Court has rejected Domino’s petition and will not hear its appeal. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that Domino’s must abide by the Americans With Disabilities Act stands.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court will decide whether to give Domino’s Pizza one last chance at its three-year fight for the right to discriminate against people who are blind and visually impaired. The pizza giant is asking the court to reexamine an appellate court decision requiring Domino’s to make its website accessible to people with disabilities. In the lawsuit at the center of the dispute, Guillermo Robles, who is blind, alleges that he was unable to order a pizza from the Domino’s website or mobile app because neither was accessible via screen readers, a type of software utilized by visually impaired people to browse the web and use other applications on computers and phones. Domino’s says that it has “no interest in discriminating against potential customers” with disabilities but claims that the Americans with Disabilities Act, the legal statute under which the lawsuit was filed, applies only to a physical “place” and therefore is inapplicable to websites.

The potential consequences of this fill me with genuine terror because the consequences extend far beyond pizza. I’m legally blind, and the internet, phone apps, and e-commerce are more integral parts of my daily life than shopping malls or brick-and-mortar stores have ever been. If the Supreme Court were to eventually rule in the company’s favor, the blind, visually impaired, and others who rely on accessibility tools to use the web could be locked out of the modern economy—and much of modern life. If companies and other organizations are not required to make their websites and apps accessible, people like me would be unable to access our bank accounts, look up or pay our utility bills, or buy household essentials from Amazon or other retailers.

Such a situation would further exacerbate the economic disparity that already exists for many individuals with disabilities. For example, visually impaired people who work in office jobs could find that the websites and apps they need to use in the course of their work are not accessible, making it impossible for them to meet the demands of their jobs. Others without full-time employment could find it impossible to participate in the gig economy, given that the websites and apps that provide the infrastructure for that economy need not be accessible. Social media sites, already significantly more challenging for someone like me to use, could become completely inaccessible, widening the isolation that some experience in tandem with vision loss or other disabilities.

It’s easy to envision the potential impact of this case because even today, many large companies do just enough to avoid (or to settle) litigation. As a result, accessibility hurdles abound. As I lost my sight, browsing the web and managing my tech-reliant life morphed from enjoyable to arduous. In the financial arena, large portions of my 401(k) plan’s website are completely inaccessible, including the section in which sighted users can access statements with key info about investment balances and portfolio performance. (This isn’t unique to my retirement plan; banking and financial websites are a frequent source of problems, as the New York Times noted in July.) When it comes to shopping or completing an online form, I’m often forced to abandon ship because there was a required field or checkbox out there somewhere that wasn’t correctly labeled or even visible to a screen reader. Or I lost the race in a “you have X minutes to complete checkout” adventure. Or an event I hoped to attend required that I be able to view the venue’s seating chart and click on available seats to purchase tickets. Or Captcha became convinced I was a (presumably visually impaired … ) robot.

On a more personal level, I’ve spent more time than I care to admit searching for an online store that sells anniversary and birthday cards with text descriptions—not just images—of the messages on the cards so I could partake in the simple joy of buying a card for my wife without asking a friend to come to a shop and read all the options out loud. Whether it’s photos of greeting cards or images that are integral to the navigation of websites (like this one), the internet is filled with pictures meant to convey meaning. These images leave me and others with vision limitations in the dust, even though the solution is simple: When adding pictures to a site, the developer can include “alt text,” a few words that describe the critical information being conveyed by the image. The alt text is automatically read aloud by screen readers but is invisible, and thus unobtrusive, to everyone else.

Given the prevalence of inaccessible websites and apps, I was not shocked that Domino’s chose to pick this fight. In doing so, the company has made itself an easy target for Twitter backlash, but it is far from alone in believing that it’s wasteful to spend time or money to open the door to customers with disabilities. In fact, national business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Retail Federation, among others, “are lining up behind Domino’s” to file friend-of-the-court briefs expressing their support. (For what it’s worth, I am able to visit portions of the Domino’s site, which now contains a disclaimer advising blind and visually impaired users “having problems” to call a phone number instead.)

These businesses claim their aversion to making websites accessible is not based in bias but rather is an unfortunate economic reality. Per Domino’s, “[o]rganizations simply lack ‘the financial and manpower resources to retrofit these sites.’ ” Of course, companies choose where to spend their resources. In the case of Domino’s, that choice is clear. For years, the company has boasted that its massive investments in technology are the key to its success, announcing it has transformed from a pizza company into “an e-commerce company that sells pizza,” with one-third of its total HQ staff “dedicated to tech and digital platforms.” Despite this all-in approach, Domino’s says it cannot scrape together the funds to make its site and app accessible, a process it warns could “run into the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.” One estimate puts the cost at about $38,000. For context, Domino’s topped $13.5 billion in global sales last year.

Domino’s and its supporters likely would not take this anti-accessibility position if they thought there was an economic incentive for attracting (or at least not discriminating against) customers with disabilities. But companies seem to cling to the erroneous assumption that the blind, visually impaired, and other people with disabilities are not self-sufficient and lead unrelatable, unfulfilling lives.

If this sounds like hyperbole, picture yourself taking the New York City subway to work for a month as a legally blind person using a white cane, dressed in business attire. Count how many genuinely kind, well-meaning strangers tell you how impressed they are by you. (For going to work in the morning? For dressing professionally? I’m not quite sure.) Ask yourself what assumptions about the lives and independence levels of people with disabilities lead to those interactions. Then, consider how those same assumptions might play out in a different environment: as a corporation decides how to allocate resources.

Importantly, businesses do not decide in a vacuum that accessibility is one of their lowest priorities. Corporate decisionmakers are surrounded by signals confirming their implicit understanding that equal access for the 61 million Americans with disabilities is a pie-in-the-sky ideal that society aspires to only when it is not a significant inconvenience.

Nearly 30 years after the ADA was enacted, less than 20 percent of NYC public schools are fully accessible to children with disabilities, only 25 percent of subway stations are wheelchair-accessible, and under 3 percent of the city’s intersections have accessible pedestrian signals. Across the U.S., an inadequate 40 percent of polling locations in the 2016 presidential election were accessible, according to a government analysis.

We can do better—much better.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.