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Hulu logoOn Monday, the American Council of the Blind (ACB) filed a nationwide class suit against Hulu, accusing the streaming video service of violating Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The suit, which was filed in federal district court in Boston, Massachusetts, alleges that Hulu’s website is inaccessible to users who are blind or limited vision and that the streaming video service does not offer video description on any of its content. The ACB was joined in the suit by the Bay State Council of the Blind, as well as two Massachusetts residents who are themselves blind.

Video description is a service that provides audio description of the key visual elements of video programming in order to make it more accessible to individuals who are blind or limited vision. Under the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA), television networks are required to air a minimum amount of content with video description each quarter. In addition, movie studios now regularly prepare video description for much of their content in order to comply with the ADA. The CVAA does not, however, expressly cover video streamed on internet-based services such as Hulu.

CVAA video description iconAccording to the complaint, however, Hulu does not make video description available for any content, even when audio tracks have already been prepared by the network or movie studio that created the content. For example, Modern Family had video description when it aired on television, but not when watched through Hulu. The complaint emphasizes that Hulu does make alternative language tracks, subtitles, and closed captions available to users, suggesting there is not a technical barrier to offering video description.

The ACB’s complaint further alleges that Hulu’s website and mobile apps are not accessible to users who are blind or limited vision, including allegations that they cannot be accessed through the use of a screen reader, that they do not have proper color contrast, and that users are unable to enlarge text.

The ACB and other plaintiffs have requested an order declaring that Hulu’s failure to provide video description and accessible websites and mobile apps violate the ADA, as well as an injunction requiring Hulu to provide video description on all of its content and to bring its website up to compliance with the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 Level AA standards.

ACB claims that it reached out to Hulu on numerous occasions prior to filing the lawsuit, beginning with a 2009 letter requesting that Hulu add video description to its content. During the same eight-year time period, the ACB has worked closely with Netflix and other streaming video services to help implement video description, but Hulu has, according to the complaint, refused to take similar action.

Although Hulu has not yet filed its response, the case is likely to hinge on the question of whether the streaming video service is a “place of public accommodation” under Title III of the ADA. While most courts have found that websites are not places of public accommodation unless they serve as a nexus to a physical location, judges from the District of Massachusetts have applied the ADA more broadly to all websites engaged in the types of business listed in Title III, including a “place of exhibition or entertainment,” a “sales or rental establishment,” and several other categories that a streaming video site could fall under.

If the Hulu case goes to trial and is ultimately appealed, it could help answer the outstanding question of when websites qualify as places of public accommodation, and when they do not.

This blog post is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.