The federal 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act says public accommodations must be accessible to the disabled. Initially just a concern for brick-and-mortar establishments, the government and ADA advocates eventually turned to websites as businesses began to sell goods and services online. In the last several years, a surge of demand letters and lawsuits have been filed alleging violations. For example, Winn-Dixie lost its case in a Florida federal court this summer when a blind man could not use the supermarket chain’s website. The man alleged that Winn-Dixie was not using the standard screen reader software.
Adding to the confusion, no standards for website compliance have been adopted. The Department of Justice was supposed to create the rules for website compliance in 2018, but the Trump administration derailed that in July, putting website rulemaking on the “inactive” list.
So does that mean businesses are off the hook? No, says Jan Pietruszka, a Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick attorney who handles accessibility lawsuits. One reason for the avalanche of lawsuits and demand letters is the uncertainty about how to comply. “It keeps everything in limbo,” he says. “Attorneys will still have to litigate what’s acceptable.”
For now, most of these ADA lawsuits have focused on government agencies and large businesses, such as banks and the Kmarts and Targets of the world. Federal judges are ruling both ways. Domino’s Pizza, unlike Winn-Dixie, won its case this summer, leaving businesses in a sea of confusion.
But the trend is toward ADA website compliance, says Pietruszka. “It’s only a matter of time before any business with a website is targeted,” he says.
Large companies have the resources to go to court, but Pietruszka says it’s often cheaper to fix your website.
“Most companies are settling and moving on,” Pietruszka says. “We got the demand letter [for one client], engaged the website expert, fixed the website pretty quickly and fixed it for less than the plaintiff’s attorney demanded.”
Pietruszka says businesses should get a head start on compliance. “Do the analysis, see how much it costs, complete some phases [of the retrofit], but start on a plan. We know the standards are coming,” he says.
And, in the long run, website compliance is the right thing to do and may work to a business’ advantage. “It’s a lot like the physical accommodations,” Pietruszka says. “It’s a good idea. It’s good for business to have as many people come through the door as possible.”
Where to Go For Web Content Guidelines
The best set of standards to use as a reference are the Level AA standards, which are a part of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (“WCAG2.0”), published by the World Wide Web Consortium (“W3C”). SOURCE: Rob Koenig, attorney at Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick, LLP