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The scales of justice

On October 2, 2017, the Supreme Court declined to hear a case appealing a lower court decision that vending machines were not covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The case, Magee v. Coca-Cola Refreshments USA, was brought by Emmett Magee, who is blind.

In his suit, Magee argued that Coca-Cola vending machines were not accessible to individuals who were blind or limited vision. He found this to be the case when he attempted to make purchases at vending machines located at a bus stop and in a hospital. Like anyone else, Magee wanted to quench his thirst on a hot summer day and pay for a refreshing drink.

The Supreme Court’s decision not to hear the case leaves in place the ruling from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, which stated that vending machines were not places of public accommodation under the ADA, but could still fall under ADA rules if they were located within a business that was. The Department of Justice endorsed the Fifth Circuit’s decision and discouraged the Supreme Court from hearing the case.

Like Magee, I have lingered by vending machines for five minutes, sometimes ten. I have touched that glass wall, not knowing what I’m looking at and wishing I did. I have smoothed out my slightly-crumpled dollar bill, always more than willing to exchange it for a cold drink, snack, or sandwich. I have searched for people to help me, many times failed, and let my stomach and parched throat feel the wrath of inaccessibility.

A vending machine may seem a small thing, but it still matters. It provides food and drinks, items worthy of sale that are bought with legal tender. But, as I can personally vouch, people with disabilities are left in the dark, stuck behind a glass wall that might as well be brick, unable to spend our money on what the vending machine has for sale.

As the first case to rule specifically on vending machines under the ADA, it is not clear yet how far-reaching the Magee v. Coca-Cola decision will be. At the moment, the decision is only binding within the Fifth Circuit, which consists of Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. Other courts—such as the First Circuit in Boston or the Seventh Circuit in Chicago, both of which have interpreted “places of public accommodation” more broadly—might rule differently.

Until that happens, however, many individuals with disabilities will continue to be left going thirsty when it comes to vending machines.