ADA Compliance in the Automated Present

Eatsa (“the Defendant”) is presumably “engineered to get you in and out fast,” but not if you’re blind according to a new lawsuit filed in the Southern District of New York, the federal court with jurisdiction over the culinary wonder world of the Big Apple. One big part of the litigation, in the opinion of this writer, centers around Eatsa having no front-of-the-house staff. Eatsa has a design concept that centers totally around technology: a customer walks in, orders and pays on an tablet, and the food is delivered in a cubby.

Business owners should have a nuanced understanding of disabilities and how they affect access and use of their services.

The American Council of the Blind, a non-profit organization with the stated mission of advocating for causes of the blind, and other potential blind customers (collectively, “the Plaintiffs”) sued Eatsa for failing to comply with, among other things, Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“the Act” or “ADA”). Title III prohibits places of public accommodation, such as restaurants, from discriminating against the disabled.

The Plaintiffs’ argument is that Eatsa, a restaurant and a place of public accommodation, did not make their restaurant accessible to the blind by not installing braille or phone jacks that would allow blind people access to the ordering and payment kiosks, and therefore, access to food. Under the Act and local laws, this is a potential violation because reasonable accommodations must be made for the disabled to access vital services. It is not very persuasive under the Act to argue that other dining options exist even in a place like New York City.

Although it seems as if there may be employees who could help make orders, the Plaintiffs allege that is not always the case, especially during the “lunch rush.” To make matters worse for the Defendant, the tablets and technology that it is using are alleged to make it easy for them to comply with the accessibility requirements. The Plaintiffs’ complaint states that there is “VoiceOver” technology that can be installed to provide verbal guidance. The complaint further explains text-to-speech features can be easily installed to allow access to the ordering and payment functions. The Plaintiffs state all this about the available technology because they want to make it absolutely clear: it would be easy to comply. The law only requires establishments to make accommodations that are reasonable to be ADA-compliant, nothing more. If the accommodations can be easily made, then the Plaintiffs would win.

This case demonstrates that compliance for restaurants is more imperative than typically thought and is more complex than simply making sure there’s access to your store. Business owners should have a nuanced understanding of disabilities and how they affect access and use of their services. If you’re a restaurant, your service is a public accommodation, which is scrutinized more closely. Your front-of-the-house staff, if you have one, should also be trained to assist as well. By design, Eatsa did not have such a staff. By law, however, it complicates their compliance with important laws. As avant-garde as your company may be, this will not vitiate your responsibilities to the public. If compliance with the ADA and other laws protecting disabled people is given short shrift, the filing of a lawsuit may come as a surprise but not as a shock.