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Usablenet Blog

    Web Accessibility Lawsuits in 2016 – Who's At Risk? [Blog]

    by Josef Pevsner

    By: Josef Pevsner, Business Development Executive

    The Accessible World Conference last week focused on universal inclusion and accessibility. One of the speakers, Professor Laverne Jacobs, associate law professor and Director of Graduate Studies at the University of Windsor, spoke about accessibility litigation and legislation from a social justice perspective as a person with a disability. It seems change is coming to how accessibility laws and standards will be designed and implemented in future. This talk, and subsequent presentations made me curious to see what’s really happening and what organizations are currently at risk for violations of web accessibility.

    The first high-profile lawsuits claiming that a company’s website was inaccessible to its disabled users occurred in 2000, when AOL, Bank of America, and a group of accounting firms headlined by H&R Block were sued.  Since then, around 200 public web accessibility suits have been brought against organizations both public and private, and across virtually all industries.  In the last 16 years, cases have been made against universities, municipalities, banks, insurance companies, healthcare companies, retailers, museums, hotels, online food delivery companies, sports and entertainment companies, online dating companies, etc.

    One of the biggest misconceptions among organizations I’ve spoken with is that the lawsuits are only against certain types of organizations.  I’ve heard “Only schools and cities are getting sued,” which isn’t true.  I’ve heard “we don’t have brick and mortar stores, so we’re safe,” which isn’t true.  I’ve heard “We don’t fall under the ADA Title II or III, so we can’t be sued” and “we don’t fall under Section 508, so we can’t be sued…” neither of which is true.  The fact is, every organization can be sued because they discriminate against their web users based on ability.  Narrow interpretation of largely ineffective laws (in the realm of web accessibility) that are in the process of being overhauled is both short-sighted and inconsiderate.

    Having said all that, there are still some common patterns among organizations that have recently been sued for web accessibility violations.  First, many of them, regardless of current accessibility, have not started planning for future accessibility.  Often, the law firms representing plaintiffs in these cases target companies that have taken no clear steps towards accessibility.  Second, the firms largely target organizations who provide essential goods and services considered to be “necessary amenities.” Organizations that provide goods like food or medicine, or services like healthcare, education, banking, and transportation are more likely targets because they provide something that is vital for everyone and ubiquitous online. Finally, the last pattern that we see is large retailers that have an online presence that is tied to brick and mortar stores getting sued.  For the first time last month, a California Superior Court ruled that a luggage retailer violated state law and Title III of the ADA by discriminating against disabled users on its website.

    So what are some things an organization can do to assess their own web accessibility?  Start by using free online tools to assess the current sites’ issues. This is just a high level evaluation.  Once they have a general idea of how much needs fixing, they should seek third party help to fully audit their current website(s), and plan the process of implementing changes for accessibility.  The IT and Legal teams at most companies don’t have the expertise or bandwidth to handle the volume and complexity for web accessibility. Seeking guidance from a third party that has years of experience in accessibility, with expertise in both strategy and execution is the best way to start.  The fact is, getting started is the hardest step, but it is also the key to reducing risk, and the only way to realize the return from serving users regardless of ability.  Often, the most forward-thinking and successful organizations are the ones that can find ROI from new channels that others aren’t considering.  

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