The Americans with Disabilities Act has spurred a wave of change in business practices since it was first enacted in 1990. While most see the law as furthering accessibility through the addition of wheelchair ramps or braille signs to a business’s physical structures, the law is increasingly being applied to a company’s “digital structures” as well.
The ADA contains four sections or titles. Title I prohibits employment discrimination, Title II prohibits discrimination by government and other public services organizations, and Title IV addresses telephone and television access. Title III, where most recent lawsuits lie, applies to all public accommodations and services provided by private companies. While this title, and the ADA as a whole for that matter, never explicitly mentions the internet, multiple courts have applied this to the accessibility of a business’s website. According to a UsableNet study, 2235 ADA website lawsuits were filed against companies in 2019. Retail holds steady as the most targeted industry making up 60% of all cases last year and 21% of companies were sued more than once.
Obviously, making your company’s website accessible is very necessary for a variety of reasons, not just to avoid a lawsuit. 1 in 4 Americans have some sort of disability according to a CDC report. Additionally, we all know that having an accessible website helps with SEO and assists those without disabilities as well. Still, companies struggle with the legal implications. The Americans with Disabilities Act doesn’t state any specific requirements for websites to adhere to but businesses are urged not to take this lack of legal standards to mean that accessibility should be ignored.
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, or WCAG, put in place by the World Wide Web Consortium are seen to most as the gold standard of accessibility compliance and have been cited repeatedly in lawsuits. WCAG 2.1 is the most recent iteration, and features 3 levels of compliance, A, AA, and AAA. To stay in compliance with most laws around the world, a good rule of thumb is to follow level AA of the most recent release of the WCAG, which you can read more about here.
As lawsuits using the WCAG continue to ramp up, it can be helpful to take note of past litigation to see the ways businesses are being impacted today.
The class-action lawsuit filed against Target Corporation over a decade ago is seen to many as establishing the first precedent in the country regarding website accessibility for commercial websites. In February 2006, a blind student at UC Berkeley sued Target because its website was inaccessible to the blind. The lawsuit was filed in conjunction with the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and challenged Target’s website for preventing people who use assistive devices like screen readers from using its online services. The NFB requested that target optimize its website by adopting the WCAG and explicitly pointed out how Target’s lack of image alt-text made it near impossible for blind users to navigate the site. In its petition, NFB alleged that in one instance, when a blind user visiting this website selected an image of a Dyson vacuum cleaner using his or her tab key, the voice synthesizer on the computer would say "Link GP browse dot HTML reference zero six zero six one eight nine six three eight one eight zero seven two nine seven three five 12 million 957 thousand 121" instead of a useful description of the image.
Both parties eventually reached a settlement in 2008. Target Corporation had to pay out $6 million in damages and over $3 million in legal fees in addition to a court order requiring them to make their site accessible. Since the settlement, Target has been working closely with the NFB who later awarded the retail brand their Non-Visual Accessibility award in 2010.
When the ADA was enacted in 1990, no one ever suspected that we would one day be able to order pizzas online, but here we are. In 2016, popular pizza chain, Domino’s was sued in federal District Court in California by Guillermo Robles, a blind man who was unable to order pizza on the company’s website and mobile app. The plaintiff used screen reading software to navigate the web and Domino’s website and mobile application were incompatible with it. Additionally, the site had exclusive online-only promotions that the man claimed were inaccessible to the vision-impaired. Domino’s argued that without federal standards, they had no way of knowing how to comply with the law.
The case made its way to the Ninth Circuit Court who ruled in favor of Robles stating that “The alleged inaccessibility of Domino’s website and app impedes access to the goods and services of its physical pizza franchises – which are places of public accommodation.” Domino’s later attempted to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court but they refused to hear the case.
Beyoncé, yes that Beyoncé
Even chart-topping A-list celebrities like Beyoncé Knowles aren’t immune to ADA lawsuits. The singer has a website called Beyonce.com which features the latest and greatest “Bey-related” news, tour dates, and merchandise for sale. In January 2019, Mary Conner, a visually impaired woman filed a class-action lawsuit against Beyoncé’s company, Parkwood Entertainment claiming that Beyonce.com denied visually impaired users equal access to products and services offered on the site.
The lawsuit called out Beyonce.com’s noncompliance with multiple WCAG guidelines including no alt-text on images, a lack of accessible drop-down menus, and the inability to use a keyboard instead of a mouse. This case is still pending but it will be interesting to see the impacts of such a high profile ADA suit.
Where do we go from here?
It’s clear today that accessibility must become a priority. Legal pressures are mounting, there’s no doubt about that, but accessibility is all around great for business and drives innovation as a whole. Just as shops and restaurants offer ramps and accessible facilities to promote inclusion, our websites should be welcoming to all and empower, rather than limit, those with disabilities. The one benefit out of all of these lawsuits is that we are getting closer to understanding what truly makes a website accessible.
Here at Americaneagle.com, we have Web Accessibility experts on staff to help you determine whether or not your site is compliant with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. Contact us today and we will help you identify potential issues and work toward a roadmap to remedy them so you don't lose out on potential customers.