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Is Your Website at Risk of an Accessibility Lawsuit?

Posted in AX Accessibility

A spike in accessibility lawsuits against websites and web based software has many web site owners worried they may be at risk.

The threat of being sued by someone who is unable to use your website or software is quite real.  Many people recall the 2005 lawsuit against the USA department store chain, Target, by the National Federation for the Blind.  Three years later, Target Corporation settled the class action lawsuit and agreed to pay class damages of $6 million.

Recently a judge in the District Court in South Florida ruled in favor of a blind resident who was unable to read the store’s online coupons using his screen reader or conduct other tasks on the Winn Dixie food store web site.  The case become a historical first because it went to trial.

In the past dozen years, the number of lawsuits steadily rose and in the past 2 years a striking spike has many companies concerned. While all .gov web sites must meet Section 508 compliance, for years the remainder of online businesses were unclear about the rules or aware of them and ignored them. Accessibility guidelines, commonly referred to as WCAG 2.1, are strongly recommended for all websites.  The verticals finding themselves in the most hot water are ecommerce, financial, healthcare, travel, education and state and local government websites.  An increase in lawyers seeking to represent anyone who feels they are discriminated against has caused alarm.

Simply put, if you own a website and it does not comply with ADA standards, it is at risk of being targeted. That risk increases if there is a physical store to go along with the web based storefront due to Title III of the ADA. Should someone with a disability be unable to use the site or app, they have the option of getting legal representation by law firms specializing in ADA lawsuits.

One website tracking accessibility lawsuits against websites and mobile apps in the USA claims a 37% increase in 2016.

“In 2016, 6,601 ADA Title III lawsuits were filed in federal court — 1,812 more than in 2015.  This number does not include the hundreds, if not thousands, of demand letters plaintiffs sent to businesses asserting website accessibility claims.” — Source

The list of companies that have dealt with ADA lawsuits is long and includes AOL, Facebook, Experian, local and state government sites, banks, Radio Shack, Amazon, RiteAid, CVS, Staples, Hilton, Jet Blue, Disney, colleges and universities, travel sites, EBay, Ace Hardware, Party City, Patagonia, Aeropostale, Bed Bath & Beyond and Estee Lauder and more.

If you own a “plug and play” website hosted by a service specifically targeted to inexperienced people who were sold on the idea of a cheap website made from pre-built templates, you should be aware of the risks. Hiring any web designer or software developer that is not trained in accessibility is no longer a sound business decision. In fact, owning any web based property has become complicated and expensive when built, maintained and marketed by skilled people.

The most common misconception for accessibility is that it only applies to blind and deaf people. This has never been the case.  Accessibility is about inclusion. It is responsible web design practices based in the belief that everyone is a valued user. Implementation requires proper testing during development, understanding guidelines and principles for accessibility, and it requires a set of additional skills that most developers and designers do not have. Management level staff are largely unaware they need accessibility and sometimes they find out the hard way, when it’s too late.

The topic of accessibility is complicated because while there are lawsuits, there are no actual laws outside Section 508 for government sites or legal standards are less than clear, stable or consistent.  Compliance is applied differently within the United States and the UK, so for companies with a global target market, the additional code and standards must be understood and applied.  The mystery behind accessibility has contributed to its being the final item on every To Do list and companies don’t actively seek to hire accessibly engineers and testers.

Mobile redesigns and mobile SEO have been the focus, driven by mobile device technology, search engines and user behavior.  What has been ignored is mobile accessibility, text to voice and the increase in adaption by people using their devices by keyboard tabs and screen readers.  Accessibility code for Android and Apple operating systems is different.  Manual mobile device usability testing should be performed, and mobile accessibility performance and user testing added to testing procedures.

Even when companies have accessibility testing or audits conducted, they face the daunting task of implementing the code to correct the errors that are found. This is a problem because not only are there not enough people trained in accessibility coding, but businesses on content management systems like WordPress, Drupal, Joomla and homemade in-house systems more than likely do not have staff with the skills to know where to make the corrections necessary to pass standards.

Target was sued for:

  • a lack of alternative (alt) text on the site
  • online purchases could not be completed without the use of a mouse
  • image maps to show store locations were inaccessible
  • many headings important to navigating the site were missing

They settled the class action lawsuit for damages of $6 million. The Target case has been largely forgotten.

That kind of disregard for user experience is no longer being tolerated.

See also

Why Did Winn Dixie Lose the Accessibility Lawsuit?

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