As more companies build online presences, few recognize the perils that often accompany the responsibility of maintaining an online website.
For example, most businesses fail to recognize that once their companies’ websites go online, these websites become subject to Title III of the American Disability Act (“ADA”). Compliance with Title III requires that companies prohibit discrimination that would inhibit a consumer’s enjoyment of a public place due to a preexisting disability.
In the past, this meant that businesses had to ensure that they supplied accommodations for consumers with disabilities. This usually came in the form of installing elevators that had braille or building parking lots that had handicap spaces and ramps. Thus, if ADA lawsuits were filed, they were generally brought against businesses that were regularly visited by the general public en masse (e.g., movie theaters, parking garages, supermarkets, etc.).
With the advent of the Internet, however, all of this has changed. Now, because websites are also considered to be “places of public accommodation” under the ADA, new lawsuits can be brought against almost anyone who operates a website. The most common types of website-based ADA lawsuits pertain to the lack of: text-to-speech options, closed-captioning of media, or screen readers for the visually-impaired.
What aggravates the issue even more is the fact that some law firms have teamed up with professional plaintiffs to bring class action or boilerplate ADA lawsuits against website operators, both big or and small, banking on the general public ignorance of Title III’s application to Internet websites.
And if anything, the federal government has only exacerbated the problem by refusing to issue official guidelines on website accessibility until 2018. Originally, the Department of Justice had released an advance notice of proposed rulemaking back in July of 2010, but has remained relatively silent on the subject sans the issuance of two statements of interest in cases brought against Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In its statement, the Department of Justice stated that the two universities had preexisting obligations to make their websites accessible to those with disabilities. In the absence of clear federal guidance, circuit courts currently remain divided over the issue of whether websites truly qualify as “places of public accommodation.”
As such, most legal experts agree that, until the federal government issues clear regulations regarding accessibility, website operators should follow the guidelines set forth by the World Wide Web Consortium (“W3C”). Companies may also greatly benefit from consulting or hiring ADA web-compliance experts to help them build new websites or audit preexisting ones in order to avoid becoming the target of ADA web-compliance lawsuits.