ADA Lawsuits Against Website Owners Are Increasing: Mitigate Risk By Making Your Site Web Accessible

  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires certain businesses to make accommodations for people with disabilities.
  • Businesses that fall under Title I, those that operate 20 or more weeks per year with at least 15 full-time employees, or Title III, those that fall under the category of “public accommodation,” are covered by the ADA.
  • Failure to create an ADA-compliant website could open a business to lawsuits

Dunkin Donuts. Hulu. Domino’s Pizza. CVS Pharmacy. Winn Dixie. These recognizable retailers, restaurants, and service providers are fan favorites for millions of Americans. But for those with permanent or temporary disabilities, these companies are accused of violating Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by lacking the proper digital accommodations to enable access to their coveted online offerings.

Threat letter
This is a threat letter received by one of our clients just recently.

Unfortunately for companies of all sizes, the five aforementioned brands are just the tip of the ADA and website accessibility iceberg.

According to law firm Seyfarth Shaw, its researchers counted a whopping 5,592 ADA Title III lawsuit filings within the first six months of 2019! That’s a 12% increase over the same period in 2018—and the firm is projecting the total for 2019 will hit 11,184 lawsuits.

And these thousands of lawsuits aren’t just being brought against big brands with an active ecommerce base. Boutique hotels, colleges across the country, shopping centers, apartment complexes, and even small art galleries have also been sued—and judges are ruling in favor of plaintiffs.

What does all this mean for your business? What steps do you need to take to keep yourself out of hot legal waters? Below we provide an overview of Section 508 Title III requirements, as well as how you can take action to better serve disabled consumers and protect your business.

What is Section 508 Title III?

Put simply, Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits commercial facilities, restaurants, and other public businesses from “discriminating” against people with disabilities.

This means full and equal enjoyment of goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations must be accessible to people with vision, hearing, cognitive, or mobility impairments.

ADA is incredibly important legislation. Everybody deserves to have that full and equal access to the world around them. But here’s the rub: ADA went into effect in 1990, long before the internet and digital marketplace became ubiquitous with everyday life.

At the time, many brick and mortar businesses and commercial properties lacked accommodations such as wheelchair ramps, handrails, and designated parking for those with disabilities. But the law’s authors never saw the internet coming.

Today, despite the growth in lawsuits over several years, federal website accessibility guidelines don’t exist yet. But that hasn’t stopped the courts from upholding complaints and slapping businesses with tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees and reparations.

However, U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is working to define specific guidelines to businesses and other public entities covered by the ADA. But what’s a business to do until then? Keep reading.

How to Ensure Website Accessibility & Protect Your Business

Avoiding legal fees, fines, and bad press is in your company’s best interest—and no one can argue with the ethical case for promoting inclusivity and access for all. But perhaps the most compelling business reason to ensure website accessibility is that it’s an opportunity to expand your customer base.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 61 million people in the United States are living with a disability, that’s roughly 26% of our nation’s population. Making website updates is simply a smart business move. So, what do you need to do?

Currently, the ADA encourages self-regulation of accessibility standards and it’s suggested that organizations use Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which were developed by the World Wide Web Consortium.

Periodically, updates are released, with the most recent update (WCAG 2.1) being released in June 2018. There are three levels outlined within WCAG 2.1: A, AA, and AAA. The DOJ and Byte Technology recommend WCAG 2.1 level AA. We’ve worked with a number of businesses to make their websites compliant to this standard level.

Bringing a website up to WCAG 2.1 level AA standards involves a fair amount of work. Our team reviews every webpage and checks it against dozens of criteria using a variety of tools, including a screen reader.

Who Needs To Be Compliant

Section 508 and Federally Funded Programs need to be compliant.
Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act covers federal programs or agencies and their use of electronic and information technology. Electronic information provided by these entities must be accessible in many ways so that is doesn’t rely solely on any single sense or ability of users. This law ensures that information is available to those with disabilities.

Web content accessibility is a specific requirement under Section 508, and the recent refresh directly references the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, known as WCAG 2.0, which specifies levels of compliance. Federal programs are legally required to comply with WCAG 2.0 AA standards, which includes captioning and audio description requirements.

Section 508 does not specifically apply to federally funded programs, though it often extends to them through other laws and through state policies. For example, the U.S. government may withhold state funding if the state doesn’t comply with Section 508. The Assistive Technology Act won’t provide funding for states unless they guarantee all state programs, like universities, will comply with Section 508. In addition, many states have enacted their own laws – called “little 508s” – which cover any state-funded programs.

You need to be ADA compliant if:

  • You accept job applications online (Title I of the ADA prohibits discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities)
  • You sell goods on your website
  • Your site is in the government, education, medical, banking, ​restaurant, or other public accommodation industry such as:
    • Inns, hotels, and motels,
    • Restaurants and bars
    • Theaters and stadiums
    • Bakery, grocery store, clothing stores, and any sales or rental establishment
    • Laundromats, dry-cleaners, and banks
    • Accountants and lawyers’ offices
    • Museums, libraries, and zoos

Take Action on Website Accessibility Upgrades Today

With lawsuits on the rise, there’s no time like the present to take action on website accessibility updates. Making updates to meet the most comprehensive guidelines available not only helps you mitigate legal risk, but also promote inclusivity and open your organization’s digital doors to new customers.

Byte Technology has extensive experience in Minneapolis and St. Paul (Twin Cities) for making websites web accessible to mitigate ADA compliance lawsuits.  Contact us today to discuss what it would take to get your website up to par.

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