What is ADA Compliance & why should you worry about it?
Understanding the ADA:
Before we can explain ADA compliance as it pertains, it’s important to address the law as it exists in general by asking the question- just what is the ADA?
The American Disabilities Act- or ADA for short- was a piece of legislation introduced on the Senate floor in 1988 that made its way to then-President George H.W. Bush’s desk in the summer of 1990. As a rare, bipartisan piece of legislation, the bill was introduced with strong sponsorship from both sides of the political aisle- a feat rare in the present day- and passed through every phase of the legislative process with landslide margins- including a unanimous voice vote in the House of Representatives.
The law offered similar protections to persons with disability as were offered to those of minority populations under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a bill with which the ADA is often compared. The ADA, however, took the protections of the Civil Rights Act a step further by requiring employers to provide reasonable accommodations to disabled workers and imposing accessibility requirements on public accommodations.
The ADA covers five key areas under its five titles- specifically employment, public entities, public accommodations (and commercial facilities), Telecommunications, and various miscellaneous provisions. The third title- regarding public accommodations and commercial facilities, is the one most recently being applied the websites- specifically that, just like brick and mortar businesses, websites need to make reasonable accommodations for disabled persons as well.
Two Landmark Suits and the Lessons Learned:
Prior to the modern era, the first time a United States heard a complaint regarding disability accessibility and the web was 2002. In the case Access Now, Inc. vs. Southwest Airlines Co., a United States District Court judge found that websites were not part of the Title III definition of public places of accommodation, setting the first precedent for the argument of “bricks vs. clicks” when it came to the ADA. In the filing, the complainant argued that websites needed accessible operation for visually impaired persons. At the time, screen reader technology was significantly weaker than it is now, and the judge ruled in favor of the defendant, deciding that cyberspace was not beholden to the requirements laid forth in the Title III section of the law.
This established precedent became the general “law of the land”, and accessibility on websites was offered as more of a courtesy than a mandate. As screen reader technologies expanded, developers were able to work within their confines and structures to create a more equitable web- at their discretion. Flashforward fifteen years, and the conversation has changed.
In June of 2017, the first web accessibility case heard by a federal judge was held in several years- with an outcome much different than Access Now’s case in 2002. Ruling against the pre-established precedent, the Floridian federal judge found that websites did fall within the Title III mandates, especially in cases where the site had an important degree of overlap with their potential tangible storefronts. If the website was intended to serve as a supplement to an actual storefront, and had substantial overlap with it (which, in the case of restaurants, would include things like event listings, menu displays, and kitchen hours), then it must meet accessibility standards.
Furthermore, a case held later in the year in the State of NY determined that, if challenged as being inaccessible, a websites owner can’t use the defense that they are actively working on accessibility and may still be found guilty of violating the ADA. In short: be prepared or suffer potential consequences.
Lawsuits At The Table
Since these landmark federal cases- the number of website accessibility lawsuits has increased a shocking 757.8% since January of 2015- and of these, 25% have been directed toward restaurants. A recent case, filed against Five Guys Burgers & Fries, took place after a blind woman attempted to use the online ordering platform to purchase a meal at the restaurant, using her screenreader technology. Due to some faulty code, the screenreader was unable to read customizations, meaning the plaintiff was unable to add pickles, ketchup, and onions to her burger. This fault in code has created a nightmare lawsuit for Five Guys, and many other restaurants like them.
If trends continue, more lawsuits of this type are on the way- especially since the Department of Justice has decided to stop pursuing an official guideline on accessibility standards outright, meaning professional plaintiffs with strong counsel get to set the bar for accessibility standards. Other restaurants that have been targeted have included Outback, Sweet Green, and NYC’s own Rosa Mexicano.
What Does This Mean for You:
For anyone operating a website in 2018, it is now incumbent upon them to make sure that their website meets all 61 of the WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) 2.0 requirements to protect themselves against suit. Riding a wave of legal precedent, members of the digital community have seen a surge in the number of ADA-compliance suits filed against business big and small. The best way to protect yourself from a suit like this is to make your website accessible to as many potential users as possible, regardless of the industry you serve.
If you’re looking for a quick fix, the simplest solution is to make sure that all images on your site contain “alt” text to explain the content the screen reader can’t see and to replace any PDF menus on your site with written content. While these simple solutions can certainly shore up your defense to an ADA-suit, keep in mind that they are not total solutions. Get in touch with your web developer and ask them for an audit of your ADA compliance so that you know the best next steps to take.