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How to Protect Your Website from Web Accessibility Lawsuits

May 30, 2018

Do you develop accessible websites?

You probably already know that brick-and-mortar businesses have to be accessible. This is why you see wheelchair access ramps built next to stairs outside shops and other helpful tools for people with difficulty hearing, seeing, and moving.

But there is more to accessibility than providing physical access to the disabled to brick-and-mortar businesses. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) obliges websites to follow accessibility guidelines as well, and if you develop a website that corresponds to a physical address then there is a legal precedent for class action litigation if you do not comply.

But what if your website doesn’t correspond to a physical address?

Until now, purely digital websites without a corresponding physical storefront have largely been protected from accessibility litigation. However, that can change at any moment – in June 2017, The US District Court for the Southern District of Florida defined grocer Winn-Dixie’s website as a place of public accommodation, and thus subject to ADA laws.

So what can you do to make your website and web tools accessible? It turns out that conforming to ADA guidelines is a complex task, so you must be proactive. By identifying and implementing action plans for compliance, you can protect yourself from potential liability.

First Stop: WCAG

To ensure compliance with the needs of disabled and disadvantaged people, you need a reference. WCAG stands for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, the most comprehensive outlook on what accessibility means from a web content perspective available to developers today.

WCAG is a W3C initiative headed by the legendary Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web. The WCAG website can be a bit overwhelming for developers who haven’t previously given much thought to accessibility.

Fortunately, the website does offer some examples of web accessibility that you can use as a shortcut to understanding the thought process it requires.

  • Images should contain equivalent alternative text in the markup so that visually-impaired users can understand what they are missing.
  • Website functionality should not rely on a mouse. Both motor-impaired and visually-impaired users need to be able to use a website using only a keyboard.
  • Audio transcripts must be available for people who cannot hear.
  • Websites should support multiple languages.

All of these guidelines are generally easy to implement, yet seventy percent of websites fail to adhere to the word of law concerning accessibility.

Why Are So Few Websites Accessible?

One of the major complicating factors in the website accessibility debate is the fact that although ADA obliges websites to be accessible and W3C establishes examples of accessibility, complete, comprehensive guidelines do not exist.

As of now, nobody can guarantee that your website is going to be accessible to every impaired, disabled, or disadvantaged person who tries to access it because there are unlimited types of impairments, disabilities, and disadvantages that people can suffer from – how do you accommodate them all?

Fortunately, the law does not require you to accommodate every disability under the sun. It requires you to demonstrate a good-faith attempt towards meeting the general needs of disabled and disadvantaged people.

These needs generally break down into four categories:

Perceptive Needs

You must offer basic alternatives for perceiving the fundamental features of your website. This means that non-text content should be somehow available in text form, and be readily retrievable through assistive technologies like JAWS.

That means that captions must accompany videos and transcripts must accompany audio files. It also means that users should be able to change color, audio, contrast, and text sizes on your website.

Operative Needs

You must offer basic alternatives for operating your website in addition to a point-and-click graphic interface. For the most part, meeting users’ operative needs is as simple as ensuring that your website is functional using only a keyboard. This is because most assistive technologies are analogous to the keyboard.

Other elements of website operation to keep in mind include timing, pop-up interruption behavior, and navigation. Are there multiple ways to locate a particular page on your website? Can users easily identify their location within your website and find their way in and out of those pages using only the keyboard?

Cognitive Needs

Addressing cognitive needs means making your website as universally understandable as possible. The simplest way to address these needs is to offer multiple page languages since you cannot reasonably infer that every website user will know and understand English.

However, website content that is full of abbreviations and jargon can also run afoul of accessibility guidelines. Similarly, websites that do not act predictably or support input assistance may be non-compliant.

Compatibility Needs

Generally, the point of WCAG compliance is ensuring that your website content can be reliably interpreted by a broad variety of users, including those using assistive technologies. It is your responsibility to ensure that your website offers support for these technologies and is built in such a way to allow for the eventual addition of future technologies.

What You Can Do Now to Protect Yourself From ADA Liability

As mentioned above, addressing all of these needs and guidelines can seem overwhelming at first. As a web development agency, are you on the hook to update every website you’ve ever developed? How long do you have until an unhappy user puts a lawsuit together and creates an argument for your liability?

Fortunately, there is a painless way to afford yourself basic protection against ADA liability lawsuits. This precedent was established in Robles v. Dominos Pizza LLC in the year 2017.

The plaintiff charged Domino’s Pizza with discrimination against the visually-impaired because its website did not accommodate screen reader software. However, every page on the company’s website features a small disclaimer, legible to assistive reader software, that points disabled and disadvantaged users to a toll-free phone number they can call for help using the website and placing pizza orders.

This tiny addition was enough for the Court to see that Domino’s made a good-faith attempt to provide practical accommodation to disabled and disadvantaged users, even if it was not the specific type of accommodation that a particular user wanted.

At UnlimitedWP, we keep accessibility in mind from the very beginning of any web project. Taking a cue from the Domino’s case, we also add this small disclaimer at the bottom of the pages we develop:

We are committed to continually improving website accessibility for everyone. If for any reason you are having difficulty processing an order or navigating our website, please call +1 (781) 974 4568 or email hello@unlimited.com.

With this disclaimer, legible and readable by any assistive technology on the market, we have established a minimum level of protection against accessibility concerns by giving our users an alternative to litigation. This allows us to more readily focus on implementing the accessibility standards proposed by WCAG while remaining responsive to user needs moving forward.

This guide is intended to provide practical information to help you build better, more accessible websites. However, we are not lawyers, and none of this constitutes legal advice. If you are worried about the legal implications of web accessibility, we recommend that you check the specific legislation governing accessibility for the web/public resources in your country or locale, and seek the advice of a qualified lawyer.

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After building my web agency JD Softtech in both Boston and Ahmedabad, India, I wanted to find a way to help other agencies.

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