Since the introduction of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, physically impaired individuals have been taking advantage of this civil law to protect their rights to receive the same quality of services and products as every other individual. Website accessibility standards were set forth, and it was not long before the first lawsuit regarding accessibility of web services was filed.
The standards of website accessibility are yet to be transformed to official government regulation as we have not seen much modernization in ADA civil rights law regarding this aspect in the past years. However, people with disabilities are filing hundreds of complaints each year to vendors that have a strong online presence and provide supplemental services via websites and mobile applications that don’t comply with modern WCAG 2.1 accessibility standards.
According to Law360, over 240 federal ADA website compliance lawsuits were filed in 2016 alone. As stated by Seyfarth Shaw, the trend continued through 2017 with an astonishing 814 ADA website accessibility lawsuits filed. A more recent Seyfarth Shaw Synopsis states that web accessibility cases filed to federal court showed no signs of stopping during the first 6 months of 2018 and there have already been at least 1053 ADA lawsuits filed. Most of them were coming from California, New York and Florida residents with disabilities.
It’s important to note that hundreds of ADA website lawsuits are filed each month, yet only a few of them receive coverage in the media. That’s why the actual number of companies and agencies affected by website accessibility lawsuits is likely to be in tens of thousands each year.
Quite a few complaints are based on the fact that many online services can be treated as “public accommodations”, and the ADA protects the rights of physically impaired to receive such services at the same level and quality as everyone else. That’s why entities that provide extra services on their websites that are not available through channels other than online resources will most likely be facing legal claims. That is if their website does not conform to WCAG 2.1 (or to Section 508 for state and government agencies) and has issues that limit impaired people’s capabilities to have full access to the site.
Although WCAG 2.1 conformance is what website owners should look out for if they are to avoid litigations, plaintiffs mostly don’t sue organizations based solely on these guidelines. Instead, they tend to file complaints based on one of these three main factors:
Lack of basic accessibility features. The majority of cases are caused by this factor. The lack of basic, easy-to-implement web accessibility features may show indifference to needs of users with disabilities and their user experience browsing your site, which in most cases leads to a filed complaint. Basic accessibility features may include providing alt text on graphics, providing labels on form controls (e.g. text boxes, checkboxes, radio buttons), avoiding improper table markup which can lead to accessibility issues, providing alt text on images, etc.
Lack of accessibility in crucial website features. For instance, in the case with Netflix, deaf or hard of hearing users couldn’t have the same viewer experience as every other individual due to lack of video captions and subtitles. Another example here is the case with Walt Disney when disabled individuals couldn’t have proper access to website because of video and audio trailers which could not be turned off by physically and visually impaired people. These ADA website accessibility lawsuits demonstrate that litigation is more likely if a key purpose of visiting a website is completely eradicated by inaccessible UI.
Inherently inaccessible websites and apps. Such complaints as the cases against NBA and Winn Dixie, and similar cases (read on for details) suggest that websites and apps that use inherently inaccessible technologies are most likely to attract litigation. It’s understandable as such websites oftentimes completely block physically impaired individuals from accessing certain parts or even the whole website.