When the Americans With Disabilities Act passed in 1990, the World Wide Web was only a year old and was not even a commonly used term yet, much less a commonly used medium. Although the ADA is most commonly associated with the inclusion of wheelchair ramps, elevators and handrails in public buildings, three decades later the law is also being used to demand that business websites become ADA-compliant.
The law firm Seyfarth Shaw tallied more than 2,250 such federal suits filed in 2018 under Title III of the ADA, more than triple the number from the year before, alleging violations because plaintiffs “could not use websites because they were not coded to work with assistive technologies like screen readers,” the firm said. Advocates for the disabled say that websites must accessible to everyone, just like brick-and-mortar stores, restaurants and schools—with content coded to enable screen-reading software to convert words to an audio translation for the blind, video that includes written descriptions for the deaf, and interactive functions operable through keyboard commands for those who cannot operate a mouse.
It can cost several thousand to a few million dollars to make a site accessible depending on its complexity, although adding to the confusion is the fact that no formal government standards have been promulgated—and the Trump administration has decided to stop drafting rules for website ADA compliance, which many people are saying is to blame for the rise in lawsuits. A consortium of web innovators has created the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.
Targets of these suits have included retailers like Winn-Dixie Stores Inc. and CVS Pharmacies, restaurants like Domino’s Pizza Inc. and Hooters, universities like Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Hulu streaming service. The cost can be especially burdensome for small businesses, and some trade groups accuse lawyers and plaintiffs of misusing the law to collect damages imposed by the courts.
The ADA has been used since 2009 to target businesses and universities to make their online portals accessible, and the following year the U.S. Department of Justice began drafting formal regulations. But in December 2017, during the Trump administration’s rollback of federal regulations, the DOJ announced it was “withdrawing” the process.
In June 2018, more than 100 members of Congress of both parties sent a letter to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions advocating for such regulations, which defense attorneys say has led to the upsurge in lawsuits.
Could your small business be next? Have you made your website ADA compliant?