October 23, 2016

Is Your Organization About To Be Sued Because Your Website Is Inaccessible To People with Disabilities?

Is your organization about to be sued in a class action, or receive a demand from the Department of Justice, because its website or app is not accessible to people with disabilities?

Wheelchair symbol on keyboard key and image of computer keyboard
When the Americans with Disabilities Act was first drafted in 1988 (and adopted in 1990), it is unlikely that even a single member of Congress contemplated that it could be applied to the Internet.  The ADA (and specifically Title III) was applied to brick-and-mortar facilities and intended to ensure that disabled people could access and enjoy them.  Common examples are wheelchair ramps and braille menus. In the quarter-century since, almost everything that was once only brick-and-mortar now has a presence on the Internet.

One of the greatest ADA questions of our day is whether the ADA applies to websites, apps, and other online interfaces.  Only a few courts have addressed this issue, and the results have been mixed, and sometimes very fact-specific.   Courts must decide whether a given website is a "public accommodation" and, if so, whether the website operator has made "reasonable modifications" to make the website available to people with disabilities. 

One example of how websites can be more accessible is as follows:  If a website has an image that shows a product, that image can be "tagged" (or "alt tagged") with a clear written description of the image so that a visually-impaired person's "reader" program can read the description to the person (either audibly or in braille). 

The ADA is enforced by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and through private litigation.  The DOJ is reviewing organizations' websites to determine whether they comply with the law’s access requirements. In addition, a number of plaintiffs' law firms across the country are filing lawsuits alleging that organizations' websites are in violation of the ADA. Internet companies, including Netflixhave settled cases that alleged their websites were inaccessible to people with disabilities.

Several North Carolina companies have recently received demand letters from plaintiffs' law firms alleging that their websites are in violation of the ADA.  So far, these demands have not resulted in litigation, and some are still being addressed.

There are currently no specific federal standards for websites under the ADA. Since 2010, the DOJ has been telling us that it is in the process of developing regulations for website accessibility, but those standards are not expected until 2018 or later.  In the meantime, the DOJ says it expects organizations to make their websites accessible to the disabled.  The DOJ has indicated that it considers the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) [2.0 Level AA] to be satisfactory for the time being (and perhaps these standards go further than legally necessary), and many organizations have been working towards compliance with those standards on the assumption that any future DOJ standards will be consistent with them (although there are no promises). 

If your organization receives correspondence from the DOJ or a plaintiffs' law firm regarding website or app ADA issues, I strongly suggest you talk to a knowledgeable attorney immediately.


Matt Cordell is a lawyer in the Research Triangle of North Carolina with significant experience in technology law, software development and license agreements, website development and license contracts, and e-commerce.  Matt Cordell is one of the best known lawyers in the region in the fields of privacy law and information security law.

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