There has been an increase in the number of lawsuits filed by disabled people for website inaccessibility issues. Their primary complaint is that websites, mobile apps, and digital content do not meet WCAG standards. And it’s primarily people with hearing or sight disabilities and neuro or motor disorders who file complaints. Consequently, websites bear most of the brunt of digital accessibility lawsuits filed.
Unfortunately, as there are no laws specifically about websites, courts have applied to generate non-discrimination principles for web accessibility lawsuits.
Plaintiffs generally file website accessibility lawsuits based on two legal theories.
- The first relates to Title III‘s equal access mandate and general non-discrimination.
- The second states that places of public accommodations have to provide the required supplemental aids and services without additional expenses. These aids and services help make communication with the disabled easier.
While Title III and its regulations do not mention “auxiliary aids and services” anywhere, the phrase includes “accessible electronic and information technology.” including websites and mobile apps.
An increase in the number of mobile app accessibility lawsuits filed
Mobile app and website lawsuits constitute about twenty percent of all ADA Title III federal court filings. This amounts to more than 10,000 lawsuits placed annually. However, the digital ADA cases exclude:
- The numerous state court filings in state courts for website and mobile app cases
- The many demand letters that reach a compromise before filing lawsuits
- DOJ enforcement that’s usually resolved before filing a suit.
Businesses that received maximum ADA lawsuits
Unsurprisingly, e-commerce companies usually receive the most complaints, especially those with a physical location. And the reason for this is that e-commerce websites are relatively large, and complex.
So there is a higher chance of using non-compliant 3rd party components in their website design.
The smaller online web-only businesses are also not spared. They make a common target for lawsuits because their larger counterparts have already faced lawsuits and have taken the required preventive measures.
What are some common accessibility issues?
Some accessibility challenges are more common in the lawsuits filed. The good news is it is easy to resolve most lawsuits filed based on:
- Programmatic accessibility problems which programs can detect
- User-centric issues detected by humans
These are the most common reasons to file a digital accessibility lawsuit:
Images missing alt text
It is always better and more convenient to have images with alt text as it especially helps disabled users understand an image better.
However, according to WCAG, there are some exceptions to the rule. For example, it is okay for assistive technology to ignore any non-text content on the site that is placed purely for decoration purposes.
Prevention is always better than cure.
So all images added to the site should have accompanying clear and simple alt text to prevent any accessibility challenges from arising in the first place. And the person entering content to the site should be given proper and relevant training to prevent this from happening.
Use of overlay widgets and toolbars
Many websites have an accessibility icon on the page’s lower left or right side. These overlay solutions reveal a toolbar tray used to adjust the display when clicked. While they seem helpful to users, they are not beneficial.
As many people with disabilities share, these overlays block some assistive technologies they use, like screen readers.
Website owners use overlay accessibility widgets and toolbars, assuming they make a cheap and viable solution to web accessibility problems. On the contrary, they often lead to eventually increased expenses.
The icons only end up attracting, not preventing lawsuits,s as they indicate that your website is not accessible.
Low contrast in text
According to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0, a website should have a contrast of at least 4.5:1 on standard text. This ensures everyone can read the text, including those with low vision or color blindness.
Unfortunately, low contrast in the text is the most common accessibility issue found in about 85% of web pages.
There, however, are accessibility testing tools like color contrast checkers to ensure good contrast between the text and other website elements like highlights or background.
And in case of low contrast issues, changing the site theme can fix it. For example, you can make use of different colors for headings, captions, lists, and other text.
Missing link text
Links are like the doors to the internet that users need and use to enter and navigate through sites. So it can create website accessibility problems if the links are not indicated, with text for activating them.
In the case of missing link text, it becomes an issue where there is no text representing a hyperlink. For example, the visually impaired will not be able to know the purpose of an image or button on the site if there is no link text.
This is because screen readers can only interpret text and will not interpret images or buttons with no text as a link. Hyperlinking relevant text to the association or including alt text for the link quickly resolves the problem.
Ambiguous link text
Link text with vague words like “click here” and “more information” can be misleading, and it doesn’t reveal to screen readers what the link is for and where it goes. So instead of using ambiguous link text, it is better to use something brief and informative.
For example, instead of “click here,” the link text should read “Get more program details here.”
Excessive use of navigation links
As screen readers and other assistive devices click through or read out navigation links, having too many links at the site’s top complicates things. It is, instead, better to use a search bar or sub-navigations.
You can also provide a “skip navigation” link before the menu items so users can skip the navigation when required.
Empty form labels
Both simple subscription forms and complex job application forms are essential website functions users commonly interact with daily. Ironically, it is also a common cause of ADA non-compliance, like empty form labels. Form labels are necessary for screenreader users to know what information a form field requires. Unfortunately, screen readers cannot always clearly read the labels like forms with pre-filled text indicating what the form field is for.
While it may help some people, it can create issues with assistive devices. So it’s better to ensure all your forms have clear labels and inputs.
Unclear form controls
Similarly, while some form controls like ‘submit’ and ‘next page’ are straightforward, some aren’t. For example, screen readers and most assistive devices will not be able to detect a date selection tool in a form.
So it’s better to test and ensure all your form controls are straightforward and ADA accessible.
No control on time-outs
Some forms, like documents related to a purchase, expire after a fixed period. While it usually provides sufficient time for regular users to fill out the form, those using screenreaders or other assistive devices need more time.
These users should know when the form will expire and have the option to extend the time limit where required.
Resolving these top common challenges takes care of 90% of disabled users’ problems. While it won’t guarantee site accessibility, it’s an essential start, as accessibility is all about the website’s functioning and not its form.
So it takes some time to reach complete website accessibility.
Two useful WCAG 2.1 conformance tips to know
You don’t have to wait for a lawsuit to ensure your website adheres to accessibility requirements. Prevention is always better than cure, so it’s better to have a 3rd party assess your website for WCAG 2.1 conformance.
In addition to this, the following tips can help improve the accessibility of your digital assets:
1: Have people with disabilities test websites and mobile apps
No doubt automated scans do help quickly detect any compliance issues. However, no machine can beat the competence of human interactions. And it’s even better if not just anyone but someone with disabilities does the testing.
They can test better because they know the difficulties the disabled go through while visiting a website. So they can give a better perspective of your website or mobile app’s user experience.
2: Strive for long-term and not short-term maintenance
No software can immediately identify and fix all digital accessibility issues in a single go. Like humans, the internet keeps changing, and new rules and problems keep cropping up daily.
So to ensure true website accessibility, you will have to commit to having a long-term digital accessibility testing, maintenance, and remediation program.
Future of digital accessibility and ADA cases in 2022
It looks like businesses with an online presence that do not comply with WCAG standards will face an increased risk of demand letters and lawsuits.
It’s because it’s doubtful that there will be any massive ADA changes to the disabilities act shortly. Nor are there plans to pass laws that reduce legal exposure.
So a vast majority of businesses have no option but to invest in digital accessibility and maintain accessibility to avoid facing possible litigation and monetary damages. By doing so, they make their website accessible to people with disabilities and increase user experience.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. Which state has the highest web accessibility lawsuits in 2021?
More than 8,000 digital accessibility cases have been filed or removed from federal courts nationwide between 2017 and 2020. And over 85% of these filings occurred in New York, Florida, and California.
However, New York has the highest number of digital lawsuits ( more than 62%) in 2021.
2. How many accessibility lawsuits are there?
More than 11,452 people filed an ADA Title III lawsuit in 2021.
3. What is the most severe accessibility issue?
Poor contrast text is the most severe accessibility issue.
Websites offering optimal user experience will benefit all users and increase online sales and conversions. And according to accessibility advocates, the best way for website owners to avoid a lawsuit is to turn to 3rd party parties for help in conforming with ADA requirements.
Many third-party parties will audit websites, mobile apps, and content to ensure they are ADA-compliant and prevent more lawsuits.
However, you must select the right person with appropriate technical expertise to make the assessment. This is necessary because automated testing solutions detect only about 30% of the WCAG issues.
Look for a 3rd party like ADA Site Compliance, the#1 place for ADA website compliance offering a combination of automatic and human testing for your complete web accessibility audit.
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The ADA prohibits any private businesses that provide goods or services to the public, referred to as “public accommodations,” from discriminating against those with disabilities. Federal courts have ruled that the ADA includes websites in the definition of public accommodation. As such, websites must offer auxiliary aids and services to low-vision, hearing-impaired, and physically disabled persons, in the same way a business facility must offer wheelchair ramps, braille signage, and sign language interpreters, among other forms of assistance.
All websites must be properly coded for use by electronic screen readers that read aloud to sight-impaired users the visual elements of a webpage. Additionally, all live and pre-recorded audio content must have synchronous captioning for hearing-impaired users.
Websites must accommodate hundreds of keyboard combinations, such as Ctrl + P to print, that people with disabilities depend on to navigate the Internet.
Litigation continues to increase substantially. All business and governmental entities are potential targets for lawsuits and demand letters. Recent actions by the Department of Justice targeting businesses with inaccessible websites will likely create a dramatic increase of litigation risk.
Big box retailer Target Corp. was ordered to pay $6 million – plus $3.7 million more in legal costs – to settle a landmark class action suit brought by the National Federation of the Blind. Other recent defendants in these cases have included McDonald’s, Carnival Cruise Lines, Netflix, Harvard University, Foot Locker, and the National Basketball Association (NBA). Along with these large companies, thousands of small businesses have been subject to ADA website litigation.
Defendants in ADA lawsuits typically pay plaintiff's legal fees, their own legal fees for defending the litigation, and potential additional costs. In all, the average cost can range from tens of thousands of dollars, to above six figures. There are also high intangible costs, such as added stress, time and human capital, as well as reputational damage. Furthermore, if the remediation is incomplete, copycat suits and serial filers can follow, meaning double or triple the outlay. It's vital to implement a long-term strategy for ensuring your website is accessible and legally compliant.