DETROIT -- Beatrice Luckett (pictured), who is blind, goes online using software that reads the text aloud to pay bills, send e-mails and browse sites for medical remedies. But the 69-year-old woman said many sites are useless to her because they don't work with the software.
"If there is no way of accessing the Internet, then we can't be involved," she said.
Court decisions and new federal regulations expected this year could clear the way for better access by disabled users to the Internet under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.
The ADA civil rights law, which prohibits discrimination based on disability, was enacted in 1990 before the Internet boom. The law, among its many points, requires accommodations be made in public areas for disabled people. In many cases, lawyers say websites should be considered virtual public spaces and operators forced to comply.
"Websites are the new frontier," said Brian G. Muse, a law partner with LeClairRyan in Williamsburg, Va., who specializes in defending ADA lawsuits.
Some companies, such as NetFlix and Target, have already been sued and changed their technology to give greater access. For example, NetFlix, an on-demand video provider with tens of thousands of titles, has agreed to add closed captioning so deaf people can read dialogue.
"Most people don't think about it, and most people are not aware of it," said Kathy Ossian, a Ferndale attorney who specializes in technology matters and recently offered a seminar in metro Detroit on the issue. "But just about everyone has a website, and just about everybody uses the Web."
Ossian and others — including groups that have sued major companies to force greater cyber-accessibility — are urging businesses to get ahead of new rules expected soon from the U.S. Department of Justice. Ossian said companies should consider how their sites can be used, for example, by people who are blind, deaf or who can't use their hands and need strong voice recognition capabilities.
In recent years, with the rise of communications technology, there has been an increasing number of lawsuits related to the Internet and ADA rules, said Marty Orlick, a partner with Jeffer Mangels Butler & Mitchell in San Francisco. He estimates about 16,000 ADA lawsuits have been filed nationally since 2000. Only a handful of those are directly related to websites, but legal questions and cases in this area are likely to increase, he said.
Muse, the Virginia lawyer, said new guidelines expected from the Justice Department as early as this year will likely answer questions and help resolve the few and conflicting court decisions thus far. The new rules likely will broaden how the law applies to commercial sites and could significantly increase the requirements for designing and running websites.
"It's potentially a huge deal," Muse said. "I think the best advice is to start thinking about it now. Don't wait until you find out about it from a lawsuit."
In many cases, websites already have functions that make them accessible, such as captioned photos and basic coding so that a third-party software application can read text aloud for blind people, said John Torres, an attorney and production coordinator at the Web development firm Media Genesis in Troy.
But every additional feature also adds to the bottom line, Torres said. "It can get crazy as this law progresses."
Groups representing people with disabilities say cost should not be an excuse. Online accessibility, they say, is the right thing for companies to do.
"It's absolutely essential," said John Pare, an executive director with the National Federation of the Blind in Baltimore. "Otherwise blind people would be blocked from getting the same educational opportunities and employment opportunities as non-blind people."
The federation and other groups have gone to court. The group sued Target in California in 2006, alleging that blind people could not use the Minneapolis-based retailer's website. Target settled two years later after the court held that the online store was a public accommodation. As part of the agreement, the retailer set up a $6 million fund to settle claims.
Pare, who is blind, said accessibility from site to site varies for the 1.3 million legally blind people in the U.S. who operate computers using software applications that can read text and by using keyboard controls, instead of a mouse, to navigate sites.
Last year, the National Association of the Deaf, along with the Western Massachusetts Association of the Deaf and Hearing-Impaired, settled a lawsuit against Netflix in federal district court in Massachusetts.
The case alleged Netflix violated the disabilities act by not closed-captioning streamed video, preventing 48 million deaf and hard-of-hearing people from using the service. To settle the case, Netflix agreed to add the text to all of its content by 2014.
"Not only is it now the law, but it makes good business sense to make websites fully accessible to everyone," the association's director of communications Lizzie Sorkin said via e-mail. "Why would any business make it hard for anyone to buy their products or services?"