Refresher on web accessibility
If you’ve found your way to the blog of a tech company, it’s likely that you already know that web accessibility refers to the practice of designing and developing websites that are usable for people with disabilities. Typically, web accessibility is evaluated against the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)’s lengthy set of rules best summarized using the acronym “POUR:”
For WCAG’s definition, “people with disabilities” include those with auditory, cognitive, motor, and/or visual impairments. And with over a billion people worldwide (around 15% of the world’s population) living with a disability, it’s more important than ever to accommodate people with these needs, both from an ethical and business standpoint. In the last few years, there has also been an increasing need to accommodate these needs from a legal standpoint.
Web accessibility court cases are on the rise
In the United States, legal action that involves web accessibility usually falls under the Americans with Disabilities ACT (ADA) and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Both of these laws prohibit discrimination based on disability, requiring that public and private entities provide equal access to their goods and services. In these frameworks, websites are now considered “public entities” and should, therefore, be accessible to those with disabilities.
There’s been a substantial increase in web accessibility lawsuits filed against businesses as the Internet has become more “public.” Non-conformance to WCAG standards is increasingly considered similar to not providing equal access to users with disabilities, which is the impetus behind web accessibility lawsuits against nonconformant businesses.
High-profile web accessibility lawsuits
Advocates for those with disabilities champion the pursuit of legal action against businesses that don’t adhere to WCAG guidelines, which has led to several high-profile lawsuits over the last 5-10 years. Unfortunately, the threat of a lawsuit drives organizations to more readily make their websites accessible than the ethical or even business benefits of doing so. Here, we will outline some of the most notable (and most expensive!) cases of the last few years.
Juan Carlos Gil vs. Winn-Dixie
In 2017, a visually impaired man named Juan Carlos Gil brought an action against Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc., a regional grocery store, under Title III of the ADA of 1990. The Plaintiff claimed that his rights were violated because he wasn’t able to access their website using their screen reading software.
The Courts agreed.
Because Winn Dixie’s website was considered a “place of public accommodation,” the company had to make its website WCAG-compliant and set aside $250,000. Additionally, the company must provide employees with annual website accessibility training and adopt a web accessibility policy.
National Federation of the Blind (NFB) vs. Target Corporation
The NFB first notified Target Corporation of their website’s inaccessibility to the blind all the way back in 2005, and they filed a lawsuit in 2006. This suit alleged that Target violated the California Unruh Civil Rights Act (California Civil Code Section 51 et. seq.), California Disabled Persons Act (California Civil Code Section 54 et. seq.), and The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
This case serves as an example for large and small companies alike, as it toiled in the courts until Target finally settled the class-action lawsuit twelve years later, in 2018. As part of the settlement, Target paid $6 million in damages and had to make its website accessible to those with disabilities. The company also agreed to allow the NFB to train its web development team and monitor the website’s accessibility for three years.
A hefty price for an inaccessible website, indeed.
Class action settlements hold brands accountable
Today’s consumers know their rights, and they aren’t afraid to hold businesses accountable when they feel like their online experiences don’t accommodate their accessibility needs. From Barnes and Noble to Goop and Target, the public is increasingly willing to take a stance and challenge business giants to accommodate those with disabilities both online and offline or pay handsomely.
Part of the challenge with web accessibility has been ambiguity in the law. Although technology, including the Internet and what we can do with websites and apps now, has advanced rapidly over the last 20 years, US law has not quite kept up the same pace. As the number of lawsuits continues to rise, lawmakers are pressured to more precisely define the terms and expectations for website accessibility.
In 2022, the Department of Justice announced its intent to publish proposed regulations for the implementation of Title II of the ADA, which include legal web accessibility standards for state and local governments and other public entities. While these updates affect Title II rather than Title III, legal experts believe that changes to Title II regulations will ultimately lead to changes to Title III of the ADA, which is the primary banner under which business websites are susceptible to legal action.
I’m not Target: can I really be sued?
The short answer is yes, but the likelihood is closer to “no.” 🙃 And if that’s not helpful, welcome to the ambiguity surrounding web accessibility and the law! It’s a difficult situation, but it’s also increasingly common for business owners to find themselves weighing the cost of website updates against the likelihood of legal action.
Even if it’s unlikely that you will be sued, it’s still probably not worth the risk as your business grows, especially in light of upcoming changes to the ADA.
So, how do I make my website accessible?
Our proactive approach to website accessibility can help you stave off lawsuits and help you reach a broader audience. Some immediate actions we can help you take include:
- Conduct regular accessibility audits of your website: There are many tools and tests we can use to identify areas that need accessibility improvements.
- Implement web accessibility standards: We follow the latest WCAG standards for design, development, and content, and we can help you make a plan to adhere to these standards moving forward.
- Regular testing: Never content to rest on our laurels, we’re happy to continue testing long after launch to make sure your website stays abreast of the latest and greatest advancements in accessibility assistive technologies.