Web Accessibility Regulations Trigger Lawsuits

A few months ago, a local company came to Pixo, blindsided with a web accessibility lawsuit. The settlement claimed “substantial access barriers” on their website which made it “impossible for our clients and similarly situated stakeholders to access the site’s privacy-related information and legal terms and conditions, and to exercise privacy and legal choices available to persons who enjoy full access to the website.” Not only did the settlement ask for “injunctive relief, and reasonable attorney’s fee and costs,” they also requested extensive remedial measures to the company’s website and web practices, including assessment, training, user-testing, monitoring, and other policy and programming measures.

See https://www.pixotech.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/SettlementLetter.pdf for a copy of the full letter.

This is not an isolated incident. Hundreds of Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) class action lawsuits were filed last year against retailers, banks, hospitals, universities, and other places of “public accommodation” for allegedly denying access to the visually impaired with websites neglecting accessibility functionality for screen readers and other assistive technologies. (1).

“… Retailers Must Make Their Websites Accessible to the Blind Under the ADA.” (2)

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) issued an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking(3) which is expected to lead to additional or revised regulation of Title III of the ADA to include specific guidelines and regulations on the accessibility of services and goods offered on the web (4). The target date for public (state and local government) regulation updates to Title II is still expected this year, but private sector regulation is not likely until 2018.

The absence of legal regulation has sparked a thrust of frivolous lawsuits — even across the private sector — hoping to force defendants to pay large settlements while the legal playing field is in limbo.

What are web accessibility standards?

While there are no official web-specific ADA standards, the DOJ has strongly encouraged website accessibility through enforcement of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) from the private industry leaders at the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The standard to which most sites are expected to meet is the WCAG 2.0 AA level. This includes:

  • Providing text alternatives for any non-text content
  • Providing alternatives for time-based media
  • Creating content that can be presented in different ways without losing information or structure
  • Making it easier for users to see and hear content
  • Making all functionality available from a keyboard
  • Providing users enough time to read and use content
  • Not designing content in a way that is known to cause seizures
  • Providing ways to help users navigate, find content, and determine where they are on your site
  • Making text content readable and understandable
  • Making web pages appear and operate in predictable ways
  • Helping users avoid and correct mistakes
  • Maximizing compatibility with current and future user agents, including assistive technologies

What companies are at risk?

Lawsuits are on the rise for e-retailers, entertainment sites, and other private consumer businesses. Target, for example, ended up settling for $6 million with the National Federation of the Blind, despite previous rulings that the online retail websites were not places “of public accommodation”(5). In 2014, the DOJ settled with online grocery retailer, Peapod, enforcing that various measures be taken, including hiring a full-time dedicated web accessibility coordinator (6). And just last year, online-only ebook program, Scribd, was found by a Vermont court to be required to be held to ADA Title III regulations (7).

But now even smaller companies are receiving demand letters. Just recently, a local Champaign-Urbana manufacturer with an e-commerce component was served with one of these letters demanding settlement and compliance. Luckily, they reached out to Pixo and we were able to immediately provide them with a full accessibility audit of their site to determine the level of violations. And then we trained their staff to be able to perform the necessary adjustments to apply WCAG 2.0 AA standards to their consumer-facing websites. Despite this company’s quick action to rectify the issues, they were still advised by their legal counsel to settle.

What should I do?

Smart companies are meeting the needs of non-traditional website users by doing the work to become fully accessible now (8). Those lagging behind are going to be increasingly at risk for similar lawsuits. The costs of making your website compliant are minimal in comparison to the cost of eventual compliance, hiring, settlements, administrative, and legal fees.

Pixo has a long history in building accessible software, websites and tools. While we are huge proponents of all web technologies being accessible, we are not supporters of the frivolous, money-grabbing lawsuits that are multiplying daily. We’re working on providing help with FREE tools that will help check if your site is compliant. And we’ve already been heavily involved in building tools for web designers, developers, and content authors to learn how to start designing with accessibility in mind:

Time is not on your side. If your staff is able to perform the fixes right away we encourage you to do so. If you need help, Pixo can help perform a full audit of your site and even train your staff to fix existing and prevent future accessibility violations. And our experienced web developers can even dive in and get your existing site compliant right away for you, so your own staff can continue to stay focused on their existing projects.

If you’re not sure if your site is accessible, just reach out to us. We have the expertise, and we can help you understand what you’re up against.

REFERENCES

  1. ADA Title III Lawsuits Continue to Rise: 8% Increase in 2015 (Vu, Launey, Ryan)
  2. Legal Precedent Set for Web Accessibility (National Federation of the Blind, 2006)
  3. Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability; Accessibility of Web Information and Services of State and Local Government Entities and Public Accommodations (Department of Justice)
  4. Statement of Regulatory Priorities (Department of Justice, 2015)
  5. National Federation of the Blind v. Target Corporation (Wikipedia, 2016)
  6. Will the Floodgates Open Up for Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Claims Against Websites?–National Association of the Deaf v. Netflix (Goldman, 2012)
  7. Scribd Must Comply With The Americans With Disabilities Act (Goldman, 2015)
  8. Web Accessibility Press Releases (2016)