Public Accommodation, Universal Access, and Technology

Vol. 31 No. 2


Steve Jacobs is president of IDEAL Group and CEO of Apps4Android, the world’s largest developer of Android accessibility apps. He has testified before Congress on using technology to accommodate the needs of people with disabilities.

Keyboard with handicapped symbol on one keyThe 1980s was a decade of technical innovation. Products and services such as the IBM personal computer, fax machine, cable TV, and the cell phone worked their way into the fabric of people’s lives. In the late 1980s, members of Congress used these technologies to interact with each other, and their constituents, to craft the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). The purpose of the ADA was “to provide a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities” (42 U.S.C. § 12101(b)(1) (1994)) and to “bring persons with disabilities into the economic and social mainstream of American life (H.R. REP. NO. 101-485, pt. 2, at 22 (1989)). Title III of the ADA, “Public Accommodations,” requires that all new construction and modifications of places of public accommodations (e.g., restaurants, hotels, grocery stores, retail stores, and privately owned transportation systems) be accessible to individuals with disabilities, and, if readily achievable, barriers to existing facilities and services must be removed.

Virtual Places of Accommodation

In 1990, members of Congress had no way of knowing that in five short years technology would dramatically change the fabric of the American way of life and unintentionally wreak havoc with Congress’s definition of a “place of public accommodation.” Had technology not changed from the way it was in 1990, people with disabilities would not be facing many of the barriers they do today. But it did, and they do.

Here’s what happened:

  • In 1990 the first Internet server and browser was created by Tim Berners-Lee. He named his browser WorldWideWeb.
  • In 1991 Berners-Lee released a code library (with his assistant Jean-François Groff) that allowed others to create their own Web browsers.
  • In 1992 Intershop, a German company, began development of an online retailing infrastructure that came to fruition in 1994.
  • In July 1994 was founded.
  • In August 1994 SCO and Pizza Hut announced PizzaNet, “a pilot program that enables computer users, for the first time, to electronically order pizza delivery from their local Pizza Hut restaurant via the worldwide Internet.”
  • In October 1994 the first online banking service in the United States was introduced. The service was developed by Stanford Federal Credit Union.
  • In 1995 eBay was founded.

In light of all these events, the definition of the phrase “public accommodation” did not change . . . from a legal standpoint. What did change was that technology began to evolve physical places of public accommodation into virtual places of public accommodation (the Internet).

Today, there are 102,728 e-commerce retailers in the United States that are generating at least $12,000 per year in revenue. According to the web measurement firm comScore Inc. (, consumers in the United States spent $53.3 billion with online retailers during the third quarter of 2013, up 14.6 percent from the same quarter in 2012. The U.S. Census Bureau’s unadjusted e-commerce report for the third quarter of 2013 estimates sales at $61.4 billion ($67 billion adjusted).

Rather than travel to places of public accommodation to acquire knowledge (libraries, schools, universities), visit with each other (restaurants, community centers, churches), go shopping (bricks-and-mortar retail establishments), or watch a movie (bricks-and-mortar theaters), billions of consumers are opting to use the Internet to enjoy these same activities, and not on a small scale. Below is a list of the top six non-e-commerce Internet websites and the number of unique monthly visitors they host (in millions):

  • (1,000)
  • (800)
  • (350)
  • (250)
  • (250)
  • (200)

These six websites alone are used by 2.85 billion unique visitors every month (34.2 billion visitors yearly).

Knowing what you know today, if you were drafting a 2013 version of the ADA with the same spirit and intent as was the case in 1990, would you exclude Internet-based “virtual places” from the definition of places of public accommodation? I certainly wouldn’t.

Impacts of Technology on the Perception of Disability

Advances in technology since 1990 have had a profound impact on how people view disabilities. At the time the ADA was passed into law, the medical community (and many others) viewed disabilities solely as “people problems” caused by disease, trauma, and other health conditions. Disabilities were viewed as necessarily negatively impacting a person’s independence, quality of life, quality of education, and employability; as a result, people felt the need for legislation to level the playing field.

Today, disabilities are viewed differently and from within the context of environmental and social factors negatively impacting people with medical conditions. Systemic barriers, negative attitudes, and exclusion by society are major contributing factors that lead a “medical condition” to become a “disability.”

Universal Design

The term Universal Design (UD) is used to describe the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design. The intent of universal design is to simplify life for everyone. For the purposes of this article, its intent is to develop technology-based products and services that are accessible to as many people as possible at little or no extra cost. Universal design is a process of fixing design problems, not people problems. Unfortunately, not all technology developers embrace this practice, nor will this ever be the case.

Global Public Inclusive Infrastructure

There is a project afoot that holds the potential to minimize this problem on a grand scale. The solution is called a global public inclusive infrastructure (GPII). GPII’s objective is to ensure that everyone who faces accessibility barriers owing to disability, literacy, digital literacy, or aging, regardless of economic resources, can access and use the Internet and all its information resources. GPII is a paradigm shift. According to the architects of GPII,

The GPII will, for the first time, introduce automatic personalization of user interfaces and user context adaptation based on user preferences. Each information and communication technology (ICT) device will be able to instantly change to fit users as they encounter the device, rather than requiring users to figure out how to adapt, configure or install access features they need. (

The GPII will eventually allow people who cannot use standard interfaces and content to be able to use broadband-connected ICT anywhere they encounter them. The GPII would provide these people with the ability to invoke the interface adaptations they need, automatically, on any device, anywhere, anytime—so they can use the same devices in the same places for all the same purposes as everyone else. (A link to a video describing GPII can be found at

IDEAL’s Context Discovery Project

Although not a GPII service, an “inclusive infrastructure” has been developed by the corporation of which I am president, IDEAL Group ( Known as the Context Discovery system development project, it is designed to adapt and personalize digital content found on the Internet. The objective is to make content more accessible and usable by individuals with print disabilities—and everyone else. This infrastructure analyzes Internet-based digital content and then automatically extracts and presents keywords in alphabetical order and ranked by importance; generates mind maps from each keyword; generates short and long content summaries; provides exportable files of all generated collateral in HTML and RTF formats; and provides files suitable for importing into powerful, stand-alone mind-mapping and concept-mapping applications including MindManager, XMind, iThoughts, MindGenius, MindMeister, Freeplane, and Connected Mind.

In order to demonstrate the power of context-discovery technology, we knowledge-mined digital content that is, in various ways, related to the topic of this article. The “knowledge bases” below make it easy to navigate through and find information related to accessible design, disability law, and assistive technology.

Law document knowledge bases:

Blog knowledge bases:

Additional Projects for Universal Access

  • Cloud4All ( This is a large-scale integrating project grant funded by the European Commission.
  • The Trace Research and Development Center ( Founded in 1971 as part of the College of Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Trace has been a pioneer in the field of technology and disability. Its mission is to prevent the barriers and capitalize on the opportunities presented by current and emerging information and telecommunication technologies in order to create a world that is as accessible and usable as possible for as many people as possible.
  • Fluid ( Fluid is a project based at the Inclusive Design Research Centre (IDRC) of OCAD University and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The Fluid community is an international group of designers, developers, volunteers, and advisers who focus on a common mission: improving the user experience of community and open-source web applications.
  • Floe ( Floe is another project based at the IDRC; it is funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Floe provides the resources needed to enable inclusive access to personally relevant, engaging learning opportunities for the full diversity of learners and content producers. Through the Open Education Resources community, Floe makes tools that help transform, augment, and personalize the learning experience.
  • Raising the Floor ( Raising the Floor (RtF) is composed of people and organizations who are concerned that access to broadband and the Internet is no longer optional, yet many people are not able to use these technologies effectively. Participants are engaged in a broad range of activities—commercial, academic, voluntary, and governmental—all aimed at ensuring that everyone who has trouble using the default interface on modern information and communication technologies (and the default format of content) has the features and tools they need to use them alongside everyone else.

Aligning Policy and Technology

As policies and technology move into the future, it is going to become increasingly difficult to reconcile the two. Policies take months, often years, to craft and approve. Technology changes occur daily. This unfortunate divergence often results in policies becoming outdated by the time they are passed into law. The good news is that there is something we can all do to minimize this problem. That is to involve technology pioneers and visionaries in every step of all technology-focused policy-making processes. As technology evolves, these experts can help to keep policies current and in line with the technology they are being designed to influence.


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