Beyonce's company, Parkwood Entertainment, is being sued over allegations that the singer's official website (Beyonce.com) is not accessible to blind or visually-impaired people and is thus in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
What the Beyonce.com accessibility lawsuit states
Mary Conner, who is identified in the class-action suit as, "a visually-impaired and legally blind person who requires screen-reading software to read website content using her computer," claims the website is not accessible and cannot be used independently (United States District Court, Southern District of New York, Case No. 19-cv-53).
More specifically, the lawsuit says that the inaccessibility of the website prevents Conner and other visually-impaired people from learning about the artist and her music, learning about tours, buying tickets, buying merchandise, and joining the website to take advantage of other features.
The plaintiff is protected under the ADA and the complaint alleges that, as a place of public accommodation, the denial of equal access to goods and services is in direct violation of her rights under the ADA.
Accessibility violations of Beyonce.com
The lawsuit specifies that the "access barriers that prevent free and full use... include, but are not limited to: lack of alt-text on graphics, inaccessible drop-down menus, the lack of navigation links, the lack of adequate prompting and labeling, the denial of keyboard access, empty links that contain no text, redundant links where adjacent links go to the same URL address, and the requirement that transactions be performed solely with a mouse."
Here's why these violations matter for digital accessibility:
- Alt text is one of the most critical elements of accessibility. Assistive technology, like the screen readers mentioned in the lawsuit, require a sufficient and accurate text alternative ("alt text") to understand what an image is depicting and to communicate that information to users of assistive technology. Without alt text, somebody who is blind or visually-impaired may be aware that an image is there, but would not know what it is.
- Drop-down menus are commonly used and can be a great way to offer multiple options or selections in a space-efficient way. That said, if they can't be reached using only a keyboard or if the menu options lack proper labeling, somebody who doesn't use a mouse or can't see the on-screen text is unable to use them. In this case, it's claimed that blind customers can't effectively use the shopping cart or choose the size they want for products, preventing them from making purchases on Beyonce.com.
- Navigation links do what they sound like they do — help visitors move around the website. In order to be considered accessible, navigation should be predictable and consistent. When navigation links aren't adequately labeled, aren't functional in an intuitive way, or aren't present, it can be confusing or impossible for some people to effectively use a website.
- When a website is asking the user to provide any sort of information, there need to be clear instructions and labels associated with those input areas. It isn't sufficient for a prompt to be obvious visually — to be accessible to everyone, labels and instructions need to be available to assistive technology, too. In the lawsuit, it's alleged that forms that allow people to search for merchandise and provide personal information (address and credit card information) lack proper labeling, preventing people from making purchases or performing other tasks.
- Keyboard accessibility is a foundational element of digital accessibility — all interface components and navigation must be reachable and operable using only a keyboard. This is because many people can't or don't use a mouse, which requires a certain level of vision and mobility. Commonly, people who use screen readers navigate websites using a keyboard, so if something can't be reached with a keyboard it is unavailable to many people. Read: Give Yourself an Accessibility Test: Don't Use a Mouse.
- Links are the main navigational features of most websites, letting people freely move around. For links to be accessible, they should be clear, readable, visually distinct, color contrast compliant, and keyboard accessible. When links are redundant or empty, they fail to meet these guidelines. Read: Quick Guide to Accessible Hyperlinks.
What can we learn from this?
This lawsuit is receiving some attention because of the fame of the defendant. Because of this, hopefully it heightens awareness or introduces people and organizations new to accessibility to its importance and potential legal implications.
Here are some key takeaways from the Beyonce.com lawsuit:
- The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are the most accepted accessibility standards and continue to be identified by name in accessibility lawsuits. In this case, it's stated that WCAG 2.1 "guidelines are universally followed by most large business entities and government agencies to ensure their websites are accessible. Many Courts have also established WCAG 2.1 as the standard guideline for accessibility."
- Websites are places of public accommodation and are expected to provide people with disabilities the same access to goods and services as people without disabilities can enjoy.
- Accessibility isn't only required for government agencies, despite a common misconception. As this lawsuit and others like it show, the ADA has been interpreted as applying to the websites of private businesses. Read: Common Web Accessibility Myths.
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