In 2019, 2,256 website-accessibility lawsuits were filed in the federal courts of the United States. All of these lawsuits were based on violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Between 2016 and 2020, web-based lawsuits against business entities have increased by 200%. This includes large players as well as small businesses.
The ADA is a civil rights law that was passed in 1990 and prevents discrimination against people living with disabilities. The objective of this act is to ensure that those with disabilities have the same opportunities and rights as people without disabilities.
Title III of the ADA encompasses all sectors, including jobs, transportation, school, and private/public spaces that are open to the public. It requires accessibility requirements on business entities that operate in places of public accommodation, such as stores, shops, bars, restaurants, theaters, hotels, private museums, schools, and recreation facilities.
How Does this Translate to Website Accessibility?
Websites were initially not included in the scope of ‘public accommodation’. As the percentage of people using the Internet and then mobile phones increased over the years, a growing movement demanded accessibility in these spaces for people with disabilities.
Finally, in 2018, the U.S. Department of Justice mandated that websites needed to be included in the space of public accommodation. This was a landmark move, and it made businesses more conscious of the need for website accessibility, which now officially extended to the digital realm.
What is ADA Compliance?
While the ADA does not specify a clear set of guidelines for website accessibility, an ideal measure would be to use the WCAG 2.0 Level AA guidelines as a reference, which have been followed by several countries since 1999. It forms the core of website accessibility laws globally and provides guidelines that can be used by any organization aiming to make their websites more inclusive.
The Basic Principles of WCAG 2.0
Developed in collaboration with organizations and individuals across the world, WCAG 2.0 consists of guidelines that are based on the four essential principles that websites must be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust:
The information on a web page, as well as the user interface components, must be presented to users in a way that they can perceive it through their senses of sight, sound, and touch.
The ‘operable’ principle of WCAG 2.0 specifies that users must be able to interact easily with the user interface components.
Website content must be easy for everyone to understand, irrespective of the disabilities they have.
When people with disabilities use assistive technologies, they often encounter blocks that prevent them from comfortably engaging with the content on the site. The ‘robust’ WCAG 2.0 principle specifies that the website content must be robust, thereby lending itself for easy interpretation by a wide range of assistive technologies.
Under each of the guidelines listed as part of WCAG 2.0, there is a specific set of success criteria. These criteria help website developers and accessibility experts determine if a website and the pages that form a part of the website adhere to the guidelines specified in WCAG 2.0.
Lawsuits Filed Based on the ADA
Across industries, there have been several lawsuits filed in the United States over non-compliance with the ADA. While retail is the most targeted space, there have been several cases in the food service, entertainment, and travel/hospitality industries as well.
The lawsuit against Domino’s is one of the most recent examples. In 2016, Guillermo Robles, a legally blind man, filed a lawsuit after several unsuccessful attempts to order pizza online. He found it impossible to complete his order through the mobile app as well as the desktop site. His attorneys argued that the online space of Domino’s must be as accessible as their physical spaces. In 2019, the The Supreme Court denied a petition from Domino’s, leaving in place a lower court decision in favor of Robles.
In 2019, Mary Conner, a woman who is blind, sued Beyonce’s company, Parkwood Entertainment, for non-compliance with the ADA. She had earlier tried using the company’s website to buy tickets for a concert, but because of the accessibility level of the website, had failed to do so. Her attorneys specified that the company’s site did not use alternate text for images, which resulted in visually impaired users, like Conner, being unable to engage with the site.
In 2006, a class-action lawsuit was filed against the Target Corporation. A blind student at UC Berkeley, in collaboration with the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) filed a lawsuit claiming that Target’s website was inaccessible for people who used assistive technologies, such as screen readers. Through a settlement in 2008, Target had to pay over $3 million in fees and $6 million in damages. They were also issued a court order that demanded they make their site accessible. Ever since, Target has been working alongside the NFB and in 2010, Target was awarded the Non-Visual Accessibility award by the NFB. The case against Target has established a precedent in the United States in the space of website accessibility for e-commerce sites.
The Benefits of ADA Compliance
Businesses in the United States that focus on adherence to the ADA achieve a number of benefits. They protect themselves from website accessibility-based lawsuits, thereby avoiding a significant cost that they could incur from legal action. In addition, by becoming accessible to potential customers with disabilities, they have an opportunity to present their products, services, and content to a wider audience segment. ADA compliance also establishes trust and credibility.
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