In 2016, a blind man successfully sued Domino's Pizza after he was unable to place an order via the restaurant's website - citing web accessibility laws
Web accessibility is becoming an increasingly critical component of the overall online product a company offers to its customers – a trend that has only been accelerated by Covid-19 lockdown restrictions and remote living. David Gevorkian, CEO and founder of US web accessibility firm Be Accessible, discusses how businesses can provide this effectively by complying with the relevant regulations and laws.
Recent statistics reveal that 48 million Americans are living with some form of disability.
Many of them use assistive devices to enable them to independently navigate websites and other online resources and tools.
However, these technologies can be utterly useless if websites and other digital tools are not designed with accessibility in mind.
As an attorney, you may think that it isn’t practical to bother yourself about prioritising web accessibility.
Nevertheless, failing to do so can get you in serious trouble, including costly lawsuits.
Web accessibility lawsuits are on the rise. In fact, in 2018 the number of website accessibility lawsuits reached 2285 which was an 177% increase from 814 web accessibility lawsuits in 2017.
It’s imperative, then, for attorneys and law firms on the web to consider web accessibility.
What is web accessibility?
Web Accessibility simply means that websites and other digital resources are designed and developed in such a way that people with disabilities can comfortably navigate and access the web.
While fundamentally developed to aid people with permanent disabilities (visual, auditory, speech, physical, neurological, and cognitive), web accessibility encompasses all forms of disabilities.
It also includes temporary, situational, and conditional disabilities. Complete web page accessibility includes designing digital content so that it works well with assistive technology such as voice activation and screen readers.
Furthermore, web accessibility isn’t just about allowing everyone to easily navigate and use the web.
Web accessibility also benefits people without disabilities. An accessible website increases search engine optimisation (SEO) and adds value to overall user experience.
Why should attorneys be concerned with web accessibility?
Many attorneys and firms are taking accessibility issues lightly. You may think that the profession isn’t a usual target for such legal action – but that’s no longer the case.
All industries and professions are exposed to costly litigation if they fail to meet the standards of web accessibility or violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), including law firms.
Aside from the legitimately disabled persons who are ready to battle for their rights, legal trolls aplenty are so willing to put up a legal fight.
As it happens, observers found through automated accessibility tests that many attorneys and law firms failed to make their sites accessible.
Similarly, many failed to conduct or pass a website ADA compliance.
Not only does it compromise their profession or firm’s reputation, but it also alienates a big chunk of the country’s population. This will result in the loss of potential clients and revenues.
The case of Robles vs Domino’s Pizza
Many accessibility cases allege that websites and apps are not accessible to people even with the use of assistive devices – a violation of the ADA.
While there is no specific regulation on web accessibility, a significant number of plaintiff-favoured rulings show that the inaccessibility of websites and apps are being construed as a violation of the ADA’s Title II or Title III. Such in the case of Robles vs Domino’s Pizza, LLC.
The Domino’s Pizza case is a web accessibility/ADA-related case.
The plaintiff, a blind person, claimed that his right has been violated under the law on account of Domino’s being a place of public accommodation.
Mr Robles was unable to order from Domino’s Pizza’s website or app despite many attempts, even with the help of his screen reading software.
However, the defendant company argues that when the ADA was passed in 1990, websites and apps were not included.
Nonetheless, the court ruled in favor of the plaintiff, asserting that the alleged inaccessibility is equivalent to a denial of goods and services offered in its physical store.
Web accessibility standards
Every country has varying laws and recommendations for web accessibility.
In the US, several web accessibility guidelines (although not specifically required by the law) are considered to be generally accepted protocols.
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines
The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has created a set of accessibility guidelines known as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
This guideline covers a wide range of recommendations for making web content accessible to all users. It focuses on four principles: perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust.
The Americans with Disabilities Act
The ADA was signed into law in 1990. It’s a comprehensive civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on disability.
It intends to protect the rights of people with disabilities so they can fully and equally enjoy almost all areas of American life.
Title II and Title III of the ADA prohibit discrimination based on disability in services, programs, and activities offered by state and local government entities, as well as in places of public accommodation.
To help meet these requirements, the government provided the ADA Best Practices Tool Kit for state and local governments as a guide.
Section 508, otherwise known as 508 Compliance, is a part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
It requires federal agencies to have their electronic and information technology (EIT) and information and communication technology (ICT) to be accessible to people with differing abilities.
Section 508 also requires entities receiving federal funding to comply. The US Access Board is responsible for developing accessibility standards and provides the Section 508 Standards as guidance for web accessibility requirements.
Voluntary Product Accessibility Template
A Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) describes the level of compliance (according to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act) of any EIT product.
It contains a general section, a summary, and a detailed description of the product.
The internet’s impact on regulation
Attempts have been made to add web accessibility stipulations.
This is because the internet is radically transforming interactions and transactions with different entities.
In 2004, the Department of Justice (DOJ) started the process of updating ADA regulations by publishing an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) and inviting public comment.
In 2008, the DOJ issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) to adopt the revised 2004 ADA Guidelines.
However, both the 2004 ANPRM and 2008 NPRM did not specifically include web accessibility provisions.
Additionally, in the 2010 ANPRM, the DOJ considered revising the ADA Title II regulation to establish specific technical requirements in making services, programs, and activities provided by state and local governments on the web accessible.
Consequently, the Supplemental Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (SANPR) was issued specifically to solicit additional public comment.
The DOJ issued a new SANPR in 2016, but as of today, the department has not issued any further guidelines about web accessibility.
Though the jury is still out as to whether or not you are legally bound to apply web accessibility standards, you still need to make your online platform accessible especially to people with disabilities.
The best way to manage your risk is to start making your website accessible today.
Familiarising and adopting accessibility standards and guidelines such as WCAG and Section 508 standards are the most reasonable proactive solution you can do now.
Accessibility guides and statements
Another strategy you can deploy to avoid lawsuits is to publish an accessibility guide and an accessibility statement.
An accessibility guide provides information to your site visitors on how they can use your website.
It gives them a set of instructions on how they can navigate your website using adaptive devices as well as provides them with an alternative or temporary solution in case of inaccessibility.
An accessibility statement is a voluntary declaration of your intent and the actions you’ve taken to be compliant with accessibility standards.
You can include your accessibility statement in your accessibility guide.
The lack of regulations is encouraging the rise of web accessibility and ADA-related lawsuits as it is open to interpretations.
As an attorney, to protect your profession and your firm’s reputation, you need to take proactive measures and set the bar high when it comes to website accessibility.