Nearly every business or organization has a website to provide information, including a means of contact and descriptions of services. In order for all individuals to access websites, they must be non-discriminatory. Barriers within these sites can make accessing them difficult for those with disabilities and, more often than not, this inequality leads to change. The first step to achieving equality is to create a law with clear guidelines and standards.
Federal Mandates and Accessibility Law
In 1998, Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The newly amended law, under Section 508, requires educational institutions, both public and higher education, to make their electronic and information technology (EIT) accessible to people with disabilities. This law is applicable to all federal agencies when they develop, maintain, produce or use electronic information technology. Those agencies must also give disabled employees and members of the public access to the same information that individuals without disabilities can access.
Web Accessibility Standards Continue to Evolve
In accordance with market trends and innovations in technology, accessibility law requirements have been updated and integrated to include standards and other guidelines both in the United States and internationally. In addition, the standards issued by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.1) is now included. WCAG 2.1 is recognized as voluntary consensus standards for web content, not only on a local platform, but on a global level as well.
However, WCAG is not the only source of protection for individuals with disabilities when it comes to accessing and utilizing telecommunication devices. The American Disability Act of 1990 (ADA) was enacted to provide a clear and comprehensive mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities on a national basis. Title III indicates that services must be available to all of the general public, including those individuals who have disabilities.
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Due to the rapid increase in telecommunication use, more and more web accessibility lawsuits are being filed in federal court. According to a recent analysis by an international legal firm Seyfarth Shaw, 814 lawsuits pertaining to web accessibility were filed in 2017. In 2018, that number jumped dramatically, with at least 1,053 lawsuits pertaining to web accessibility filed in the first six months of the year. This excludes the number of of complaints which also result in legal proceedings. At this rate, we expect to see web accessibility lawsuits and complaints continue to intensify in the coming years.
Precedent for Businesses Large and Small
These lawsuits have been filed due to violations of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. Not only are lawsuits being brought against small businesses and organizations, but legal action has also been taken against the Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration as well. Essentially, no one is untouchable; if your organization has a website, you’re at risk of being not in compliance with set standards.
Past Cases in Web Accessibility Law Matters
In 2006, Disability Rights Advocates represented the National Federation of the Blind and three blind plaintiffs in a lawsuit. The defendant was not your average small business; in fact, they were quite well-known: Target Corporation. The lawsuit claimed that Target had an inaccessible website, which prevented blind individuals, who rely on the use of assistive technology, from using its online services. As a result of the lawsuit, Target made their website accessible for people with a wide range of disabilities and ensured assistive technologies such as screen reader software programs were compatible with their website. The court ruled that commercial websites are required to be accessible under ADA and state laws.
Target wasn’t the only large corporation hit with a lawsuit in recent years. In 2014, the Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a Complaint in Intervention on a case between the Federation of the Blind and H & R Block. The complaint states that H & R Block’s website prevents individuals with disabilities from independently preparing and filing their taxes online. A settlement was agreed upon and H & R Block was ordered to ensure their website and mobile applications conform to WCAG standards.
Historically, the DOJ has taken varying approaches to address such lawsuits; however, they have made it clear that web accessibility is expected and mandated, as listed in the ADA. Time and time again, the DOJ has entered into settlements, mandating that websites comply with WCAG standards.
The Importance of Taking Action
The risk is real. By being proactive, your organization can address these issues without the pressure of the court, which can create an experience that is rushed, stressful and expensive. In the event that your organization receives a letter of complaint or a lawsuit, by addressing accessibility issues ahead of time, it sends the message that your organization cares about is doing the right thing and creative inclusive environments. That type of action demonstrates an organization’s interest and commitment to implementing standards and can serve as a cushion against additional litigation.
If No Action Has Been Taken
If your organization is caught unprepared and didn’t take appropriate proactive measures, the first thing you should do is consult with legal counsel to analyze your legal risks and a web accessibility consulting firm to assess what remediation steps are necessary. Both your attorney and the court will evaluate whether or not your organization knew there was an issue with inaccessibility, what steps were taken to address such issues, or if they were essentially ignored, either on purpose or by mistake. All of the responses provided to their questions will play a large part in reducing the severity and seriousness of the litigation process.
The Impact of Legal Proceedings
Besides the obvious negative implications of a lawsuit, imagine the financial burden it would put on your organization. For example, the DOJ reached a settlement with Law School Admission Council (LSAC) in 2011. The National Federation of the Blind brought forth the complaint, listing allegations of barriers on LSAC’s website which made it impossible for students that were blind to register for the LSAT. A settlement agreement was reached in which LSAC had to provide “Full and Equal Access” to their website. In addition, LSAC was ordered to pay nearly half a million dollars in attorney fees. Not only was this process time-consuming, but extremely costly as well.
Website Accessibility Consulting
No matter the outcome, your organization should partner with a website accessibility consulting firm to help you ensure your website is meeting requirements put in place by WCAG 2.1. It also may be beneficial to list an accessibility statement on your website, explaining what steps have been taken to confirm that the site is accessible. This not only benefits your organization’s brand and public standing, but it also discourages litigation. Also included in this statement can be various ways for a consumer to contact your organization in the event they run into an accessibility issue while attempting to access your website. This allows you to be aware of an issue immediately so as to address it in a timely manner.
It is important to understand that accessibility is not a one-time event, but rather is an ongoing process. Continuous steps need to be taken to confirm that the website does not fall out of compliance. Standards are often changing or being modified, so continued monitoring minimizes your risk of receiving a demand letter or lawsuit.
How We Can Help
At AKEA Web Solutions, our leading experts with a decade of experience can assist with mitigating risks associated with web accessibility law and lawsuits. AKEA Web Solutions offers a comprehensive solution through audits of websites and digital document downloads. In the event your organization is already involved in legal action, AKEA Web Solutions can assist with expediting the auditing and remediation process. Regardless of your current circumstance, take action now to keep your business and your reputation, with protections in place against litigation.
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