For many business owners, the threat of accessibility litigation is a growing concern. By one estimate, U.S. businesses received more than 265,000 web accessibility demand letters in 2020 alone — and the number rose dramatically in 2021.
But while the some of web accessibility lawsuits are likely legitimate, that’s not always the case. In July, we wrote a brief article about a Beverly Hills attorney who is currently facing 18 felony charges for allegedly threatening local businesses and nonprofits with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) lawsuits under false pretenses.
While the outcome of the case is currently pending, the allegations brought a great deal of negative attention to the accessibility space. That prompts an uncomfortable — but necessary — question: How many ADA demand letters cite legitimate accessibility issues?
The ADA requires website accessibility, but many businesses fail to comply
There’s no way to determine how many accessibility lawsuits are argued in bad faith, but fraud allegations are exceedingly rare. Filing a false claim can have serious consequences — and given the current state of web accessibility, attorneys simply don’t need to take the risk.
Ultimately, plaintiffs can reasonably argue that most websites fail to meet their obligations under the ADA and similar laws. That’s not an exaggeration: WebAIM (Web Accessibility In Mind), a non-profit web accessibility advocacy organization, estimates that 96.8% of the internet’s top 1 million websites have identifiable accessibility barriers on their homepages. On average, WebAIM’s automated analysis found 50.8 errors per homepage.
Those barriers can have a profound effect on the experiences of people with disabilities. Common examples of web accessibility issues include:
- Low-contrast text, which can make content unreadable for people with vision disabilities.
- Missing alternative text for images, which prevent people from using screen readers to read content.
- Empty hyperlinks, which fail to provide important navigation information.
- Missing input labels for forms, which can create issues for screen readers and other assistive technologies (AT).
- Keyboard accessibility issues, which can make a website unusable for people who use a keyboard (with no mouse) as their primary means of navigation.
Businesses don’t create these barriers intentionally, but by failing to think about accessibility, they fail to provide equivalent services for people with disabilities. Unfortunately, litigation is one of the only options for advocates who want to create a better internet.
Web accessibility has clear standards, but most businesses fall short
When facing accessibility lawsuits, organizations often fall back on a common (but legally ineffective) defense: The ADA doesn’t contain standards for web accessibility, so businesses have freedom to interpret what “accessible" means.
That’s partially true — but also highly misleading. The ADA was written before most people used the internet, so the law doesn’t contain technical standards. However, an objective framework certainly exists: The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is internationally recognized as the de facto standard for digital accessibility.
The Justice Department recommends testing content against WCAG and the government’s own Section 508 standards (which are based on WCAG 2.0). Web accessibility demand letters frequently cite WCAG, and WCAG guidelines have been referenced in high-profile ADA claims including the infamous Robles v. Domino’s Pizza, LLC.
WCAG contains three potential levels of conformance: Level A (least strict), Level AA, and Level AAA (most strict). Businesses can reduce their compliance risks by following all Level AA guidelines.
For businesses, web accessibility needs to be a consistent priority
It’s likely that the allegations in most ADA demand letters are legitimate. Businesses have a clear responsibility to provide accessible content, and WCAG provides an excellent framework for making improvements — but most organizations fail to take the necessary steps.
If you’re concerned about accessibility issues on your business’s website, you shouldn’t wait for an ADA demand letter to get started. Fixing accessibility barriers benefits all users, not just individuals with disabilities, and the business benefits of an accessible mindset are profound. While inclusive design requires an investment, it’s an investment that pays off.
The Bureau of Internet Accessibility provides resources for learning about WCAG and creating a long-term plan for digital compliance. Start by downloading the Ultimate Guide to Accessibility or test your content against WCAG 2.1 Level AA guidelines with our free website accessibility scan.