What’s Happening with Digital Accessibility Lawsuits and What You Should Be Doing About It

Keyboard and gavel for digital accessibility lawsuits

In the 1990s digital commerce was just getting off the ground. As we approach 2020, more and more people are using the internet, smartphones are ubiquitous and now nearly everyone uses the internet in some aspect of their lives, including work, education, and recreation. We have telecommuting, eCommerce sites, online education, and nearly every organization has an online presence by which they interact with their target market. Along with this digital trend have come great strides in accessible technology for people with disabilities.

President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) into law in 1990, forever changing the accessibility landscape for public and private institutions. This long-standing law prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in all areas of public life. Title II of this act covers state and local governments, while Title III covers public accommodations and commercial facilities. According to the Department of Justice, Title III also includes websites.

Who makes the rules about Digital Accessibility?

Multiple regulatory bodies set and enforce digital accessibility requirements. One of these is the US Access Board, a federal agency that advocates for equal treatment for people with disabilities. The board develops the Americans with Disabilities (ADA) Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) that the Department of Transportation and the Department of Education then use to enforce standards for accessibility. Website accessibility falls under Section 504 and 508 and both Title II and Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

The Office of Civil Rights (OCR), a division of the Department of Education and the Department of Justice, investigates and resolves ADA complaints about accessibility, including digital (website) accessibility.

What is the 508 Refresh?

The U.S. Access Board’s Section 508 refresh of the standards went into effect in March 2017. These standards set a January 2018 deadline for all websites to be compliant with digital accessibility standards. According to the Department of Education, all campus websites must meet these web accessibility requirements. This past May, the Department of Education launched a new initiative to assist educational institutions in ensuring that school websites and online programs are accessible to people with disabilities.

WCAG – What is it?

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), they are the international standards by which web accessibility is measured. At present, the accepted standard is WCAG 2.0 at AA level, though the W3C published WCAG 2.1 in June 2018 which augments these standards to include small-screen devices such as smartphones and tablets, and these new guidelines will likely be adopted in the future.  These regulations overlap with ADA section 508 guidelines, many of which are based on the WCAG guidelines. In a case review of higher education accessibility lawsuits from 2015 to 2017 by Laura Carlson at the University of Minnesota, indicates seventy cases directly referenced WCAG.

What You Should be Doing about Digital Accessibility

Another study, “Website Access and Other ADA Title III Lawsuits Hit Record Numbers,” published in July 2018 by Seyfarth and Shaw, predicted that federal lawsuits filed under the ADA’s Title III (Public 

Accommodation and Commercial) could exceed the number of 2017 lawsuits filed by thirty percent. These predictions put the number of accessibility lawsuits filed in 2018 at over 10,000 if the trend continues.

According to Carlson’s case review, nearly all these cases were settled. Many of these settlements involved the following steps:

  1. Acquisition of an accessibility consultant
  2. A full website accessibility audit
  3. Remediation of the accessibility issues found in the audit
  4. Appointment of an accessibility coordinator to maintain accessibility
  5. Establishment of a web accessibility policy
  6. Accessibility training for personnel

With so much focus on digital accessibility, and so many digital accessibility lawsuits being settled in favor of the complainants, it only makes sense to be proactive about digital accessibility.

Our next blog post will discuss how your organization should go about being proactive to avoid digital accessibility lawsuits.

For more information, you can check out these links:

What is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)?

The Section 508 Refresh and What It Means for Higher Education

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) Overview


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Ryan Pugh

Ryan Pugh | Director of Accessibility | Equidox Prior to joining Equidox, Ryan Pugh served as an Access Technology Analyst for the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) in Baltimore, where he was the NFB's focal point for accessibility and usability testing. He conducted intensive web accessibility audits for compliance with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 AA for numerous Fortune 500 companies, including some of the world’s largest online retailers, notable colleges and universities, government agencies at the federal, state, and local levels and for other non-profit institutions. He also delivered accessibility training workshops and managed the NFB’s document remediation program, specializing in PDF accessibility.