With more and more people working, shopping, and enjoying entertainment remotely from the comfort and safety of their own homes, it’s more important than ever to make sure all websites and digital resources are available to all users. Failing to make resources accessible isn’t just inconvenient to assistive technology users. It prevents them from working, learning, connecting with friends and family, shopping, and accessing virtual healthcare. Failing to provide an accessible website is also against the law, and can result in costly lawsuits that damage a company’s reputation. In 2019 alone 2,256 ADA Title III website accessibility lawsuits were filed in federal court alone. So far there have already been 528 filed for the first quarter of 2020.
Who is liable?
What companies are affected by these lawsuits? It’s not only schools and government organizations that have a responsibility to provide accessible websites. Private sector companies in retail, hospitality, finance, healthcare, and consumer and business services industries must also comply. Last year, mammoth companies like Beyonce and Domino’s Pizza both faced litigation for failing to include digital labels on their websites. These failures prevented assistive technology users from successfully navigating their sites, finding information, and completing purchases.
It’s not just brick and mortar
Some companies assume that only physical places of public accommodation are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but circuit courts have widely ruled that websites should also be included, and the Supreme Court agrees. The Supreme Court has declined to provide specific, nationwide guidance on exactly how companies can make their websites accessible. However, most courts accept the standards set by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
On its website and physical catalog pages, readers of Wine Enthusiast Magazine can find retailers, services, and customer service options. It also offers a variety of wine-related products such as glassware, cookware, bars, and wine racks. Anne West, a Connecticut resident who is blind, was unable to access the site because it was not compatible with her assistive technology.
The New York-based magazine failed to provide the necessary digital codes which allow assistive technology users to navigate and gain information from a website and its digital files. West uses a screen reader that reads website information aloud to her. Wine Enthusiast didn’t identify the website’s elements using digital labels called “tags”. Without tags, West’s screen reader couldn’t identify the information to correctly pass it on to her. That made navigating the website to find information or research and purchase wine difficult or impossible. West has requested that the company hire an accessibility consultant and make its website accessible as part of this ongoing case.
Since becoming legal in 2018, cannabidiol (“CBD”) products have become less taboo and more mainstream. CBD is now found in everything from foods and supplements to skincare products, soaps, and oils. The benefits touted by CBD manufacturers include reducing the symptoms of myriad ailments like anxiety and depression, inflammation, pain, and even epilepsy. But inaccessible websites mean as many as 25% of the target audience are unable to learn more about CBD or order products to sample its benefits for themselves.
Such is the case for Charlotte’s Web, Inc. Charlotte’s Web is a CBD company located in Colorado that makes oils, balms, gummies, and other CBD-infused products. They did not code their website to be compatible with assistive technology, which many people with disabilities use. Therefore, many people with disabilities are barred from accessing the products, services, and information available on the CBD company’s website.
Plaintiff Joseph Guglielmo, who is visually impaired, was unable to successfully navigate and identify the products available on the website when he visited it in December of 2019. The company failed to make the website accessible, so Guglielmo headed a class-action lawsuit against Charlotte’s Web. He requested that they make their website compliant with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
This lawsuit isn’t the first of its kind, either. In November of 2019 three other CBD companies also faced litigation for digital ADA violations from a New York resident. That plaintiff was able to sue the companies on both a state and local level since both the state and city of New York have anti-discrimination laws, resulting in additional punitive damages and legal fees.
It is the job of educational organizations to help all students prepare for the next steps in their professional lives. Prestigious universities such as Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are certainly no exception. Just last year, however, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) spearheaded a class-action lawsuit against Harvard for failing to provide closed captioning for public-facing online videos. This year, NAD initiated identical litigation against MIT. They are now attempting to settle a class-action lawsuit to the tune of $1,000,000.
As part of a settlement, MIT, like Harvard before it, has agreed to develop a policy and process by which the public can request captioning of video and audio material on their website. They will train personnel to appropriately caption both live and prerecorded content to comply with WCAG 2.1 Level AA. MIT will provide a landing page where visitors can report Incorrect or missing captioning or requests for additional accommodations. MIT must report their progress on these settlement terms every six months to the National Association of the Deaf.
No industry is exempt from accessibility
Every industry is subject to digital accessibility lawsuits because people with disabilities use products and services in all industries. Until all companies follow guidelines that make websites accessible to everyone, people with disabilities will continue to involve the courts. Litigation remains the fastest and most effective way to convince businesses to consider their needs. Making a website accessible from the beginning is the best way to avoid lawsuits and reach everyone.