Web Developers on Notice: Bashin’s $2M Settlement Underscores Importance of WCAG Compliance

Web Developers on Notice: Bashin’s $2M Settlement Underscores Importance of WCAG Compliance

Published: January 3, 2024

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    The significance of web accessibility has reached an undeniable level of importance, underscored by a recent landmark case in web accessibility. This case is a crucial reminder of why we cannot overlook WCAG compliance.

    Here’s a question: What would be the typical cost to develop an online reservation system?

    In most scenarios, the expenditure might range in the thousands. However, the California Department of Parks and Recreation faced a more substantial expense.

    They incurred a staggering $66 million to develop an accessible online reservation system through US eDirect and Conduent State & Local Solutions, Inc. The goal was to ensure the system was inclusive, enabling all visitors to make campsite reservations.

    This extraordinary figure, while hard to believe, is indeed factual. California resident Bryan Bashin, a California resident with vision loss who faced considerable difficulties while attempting to make a campsite reservation on ReserveCalifornia.com, initiated the lawsuit.

    The site was not a WCAG complaint as claimed, and this violated the contract between the state and the vendor, which lies the crux and unique nature of this landmark case.

    The Legal Turn in Bryan Bashin’s Web Compliance Case

    It was the breach of the contractual agreement between the state and its vendor that precipitated a unique and significant legal challenge. And what sets this case apart is the usual target of such lawsuits.

    Typically, the owners of the website are held accountable for issues of inaccessibility.

    However, Bashin’s legal representatives, Relman Colfax PLLX and TRE Legal Practice adopted a different approach. Instead of directing their lawsuit against the California Department of Parks and Recreation, they targeted the government contractors.

    The lawsuit was for the contractor’s failure to fulfill the State’s contractual requirements regarding web accessibility.

    Utilizing Legal Innovation to Enforce Web Accessibility Standards

    What’s interesting is that It’s not always that a private citizen can sue government contractors without having any contractual relationship. However, in this case, Bashin’s legal team ingeniously leveraged the ‘qui tam’ whistleblower provision under the California False Claims Act.

    Their innovative approach culminated in a landmark $2 million settlement, one of the largest in U.S. history for web accessibility violations.

    This pivotal case has set a new precedent, expanding the methods by which government contractors can be held accountable for complying with state and federal digital accessibility laws.

    More than just establishing new legal standards, this case served as a wake-up call to web developers nationwide. It underscored the importance of diligently adhering to web accessibility guidelines and strictly fulfilling all contractual commitments related to these standards.

    Delving Into the Legal Foundations of Bashin’s Landmark Case

    In the deeper analysis of Bryan Bashin’s lawsuit, it’s noteworthy that his legal team strategically utilized four distinct legal frameworks to secure victory. Each framework played a pivotal role in the case, underscoring the multifaceted approach to addressing web accessibility:

    • The California Unruh Civil Rights Act: The act strictly prohibits discrimination based on disability in public accommodations, explicitly encompassing government websites. It ensures that individuals with disabilities receive equal treatment and access in all public domains.
    • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): A cornerstone in disability rights, the ADA mandates equal access to public accommodations. Its scope extends beyond physical spaces to include the need for digital platform website accessibility.
    • Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act: This section mandates that all federal agencies and their contractors maintain accessible websites. It ensures government digital resources are inclusive for all users, regardless of their abilities.
    • The California False Claims Act: Under this act, individuals can file lawsuits against contractors who make false claims on behalf of the state. This includes any misrepresentations regarding compliance with accessibility standards, making it a powerful tool for enforcing honest and transparent practices in contractor obligations.

    Key Legal Provisions Fueling the Success of Bashin’s Case

    Central to the success of Bryan Bashin’s case were two critical legal elements: The False Claims Act and its ‘qui tam’ whistleblower provision.

    This unique aspect of the law plays a vital role in empowering individuals to act on behalf of the government against entities found to be defrauding it. The ‘qui tam’ provision is particularly significant as it incentivizes individuals like Mr. Bashin to pursue legal action against contractors failing to meet accessibility standards.

    This not only safeguards the rights of people with disabilities but also ensures the judicious use of government funds.

    The incentive structure within this provision benefits both the government and the whistleblower in the event of a successful lawsuit. In Bashin’s case, t$87,500 was awarded to the victorious plaintiffs, while an additional $1.75 million was for the settlement of remaining claims and attorney fees. The state received $165,000.

    These substantial financial outcomes provide a compelling motive for other potential plaintiffs to adopt a similar strategy in cases of digital inaccessibility.

    Expanding Legal Precedents in Web Accessibility Cases

    Beyond the Bashin case, plaintiffs can consider other significant legal precedents in web accessibility:

    • Developers’ Responsibility: This precedent establishes that web developers, irrespective of their clients, bear legal responsibility for ensuring WCAG compliance in their work. It signifies that developers cannot deflect accountability onto clients and must proactively ensure that their web solutions meet accessibility standards.
    • Heightened Accountability for Government Contractors: Under this precedent, government contractors must develop fully accessible websites for all government entities. This increased level of responsibility underscores the importance of inclusivity in government-funded digital projects and ensures that contractors adhere to rigorous web accessibility standards.

    Wake-up Call for Web Developers

    The resolution of this case serves as a crucial wake-up call to the web development industry, underscoring the necessity of prioritizing web accessibility.

    Key takeaways for developers include:

    • Early Integration of Accessibility: Developers need to embed accessibility considerations right from the onset of the development process rather than treating them as an add-on or afterthought.
    • Rigorous Testing and Compliance: Employing qualified professionals to conduct thorough testing is essential to ensure following the latest WCAG guidelines. This practice is crucial for validation and maintaining high standards of accessibility.
    • Transparency and Accountability: Developers must be open and responsible about creating accessible websites. Building inclusive websites should be a legal obligation and commitment to inclusivity and corporate social responsibility.

    Repercussions Beyond California: The National Implications

    While government contractors in California most acutely feel the immediate effects of the case, its impact extends far beyond the state’s borders. This decision has set in motion a ripple effect with considerable national implications.

    This broader impact is due to similar ‘qui tam’ provisions in 29 other states under their respective False Claims laws. The possibility of developers facing lawsuits for website inaccessibility in these states underscores an urgent need for a proactive stance in web development practices.

    It emphasizes why developers must adopt and maintain comprehensive accessibility measures throughout website development design and construction.

    Understanding the WCAG: The Foundation of Web Accessibility

    WCAG stands for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, a series of internationally recognized standards designed to make web content more accessible to users with disabilities.

    The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), a global community that works to develop web standards, developed these guidelines.

    The WCAG offers a comprehensive set of criteria for web developers and website owners, guiding them in creating websites that are accessible and inclusive.

    They focus on ensuring that web content is perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust, catering to users of all abilities. This is possible by providing clear instructions and principles that facilitate the creation of websites that a wide range of users, including those with disabilities, can easily navigate and understand.

    As the international benchmark for digital accessibility, the WCAG forms the basis for Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and various state accessibility laws. Its widespread adoption and implementation underscore its critical role in shaping an accessible and inclusive digital world.

    The Crucial Importance of WCAG Compliance

    WCAG compliance is essential for several key reasons, each underscoring its necessity in the digital landscape:

    • Legal Implications: Website accessibility is mandatory under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, covering multiple websites. This legal framework has led to the emergence of legitimate plaintiffs and advocacy groups dedicated to defending web accessibility rights. Additionally, many serial plaintiffs and attorneys seek settlements, emphasizing the importance of adherence to these laws to avoid legal repercussions.
    • Diversity, Equity, and Digital Inclusion (DEI): DEI principles extend to ensuring that people with disabilities have equal access to digital spaces, just as they do to physical public accommodations. The pandemic highlighted the critical need for digital access and related disparities as the world increasingly relied on the web for various needs.
    • A Market of Opportunities: WCAG compliance is vital not only for the over 61 million individuals with disabilities in the U.S. but also for the over 71 million Baby Boomers. This demographic, with significant discretionary spending power, faces similar challenges in vision, hearing, motor skills, and cognition. Compliance thus opens up business opportunities in a substantial market segment.
    • Artificial Intelligence Optimization (AIO): The rise of AI technologies like ChatGPT and MidJourney brings new considerations for website accessibility. These AI models, like assistive technologies, encounter similar barriers when accessing websites. Consequently, WCAG compliance becomes a crucial aspect of AIO. As a nascent term and concept, AIO is redefining the role of website marketers, further elevating the importance of WCAG adherence in this evolving digital era.

    Best Practices for Designing and Auditing WCAG-Compliant Websites

    When it comes to ensuring WCAG compliance, a common approach among web developers and site owners is to rely on overlay widgets, toolbars, and plugins.

    However, this method is strongly discouraged.

    Despite various claims and the prevalent use of ‘AI’ labels, these tools cannot achieve complete WCAG compliance. Not only do they fail in this regard, but they also risk attracting the attention of opportunistic legal professionals.

    It’s vital to recognize that even the most advanced software in the market can only detect a maximum of 30% of WCAG issues. The most effective strategy for designing and auditing web compliance is to engage with a qualified web accessibility expert early in the design and development process.

    However, when choosing an expert, prioritize those who do not rely solely on automated tools for compliance verification. Instead, opt for well-credentialed and experienced WCAG testers.

    These experts can be involved in testing the design as it nears completion and can assess developed templates and components.

    They should conduct a comprehensive website evaluation on stable and fully developed sites. This evaluation should include automated and manual testing methods, like screen reader testing.

    Since different screen readers can behave variably, test the website using screen readers like JAWS, ZoomText, Dragon, and NVDA. Tests with mobile screen readers like TalkBack on Android and VoiceOver on iOS are crucial to ensure comprehensive accessibility across devices.

    Conclusion: A Milestone in Digital Accessibility and Accountability

    The case of Bryan Bashin against ReserveCalifornia.com is far from an isolated event. It represents a significant part of a widespread issue that impacts the digital accessibility of numerous mobile, web, and website applications in today’s digital landscape.

    Bashin’s landmark victory under the ‘qui tam’ whistleblower provision of California’s False Claims Act demonstrates private citizens’ power to ensure government contractors meet their accessibility obligations.

    The remarkable $2 million settlement is one of the largest in web accessibility, symbolizing a significant stride toward digital inclusivity and accountability.

    This case extends its influence beyond government contractors, serving as an imperative reminder for all web development teams. It underscores why web developers must adhere to best practices and prioritize accessibility.

    This ensures that digital spaces are as accessible and inclusive as physical public accommodations, allowing equal access to all individuals, regardless of their abilities.

    In essence, Bashin’s case is a clarion call to the digital world, reinforcing the imperative of creating an accessible and inclusive digital environment for everyone.

    Contact ADA Site Compliance today for all your website accessibility needs.

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