For healthcare providers, digital accessibility isn’t optional — and that includes complementary and alternative medicine providers.
Writing for Acupuncture Today, David Bibbey, president of the Florida State Oriental Medical Association (FSOMA), notes that two dozen California acupuncturists were hit with digital accessibility lawsuits in 2021. The complaints alleged violations of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act.
Acupuncturists weren’t specifically targeted by plaintiffs: More than 100 healthcare providers were named in ADA lawsuits in the first months of 2021, and only a portion of the defendants operated in the acupuncture industry.
Even so, the flurry of litigation was significant enough to prompt the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) and the American Society of Acupuncturists (ASA) to host a town hall meeting on ADA website compliance.
"[Unruh Act] claims can be very difficult to defend, and they often involve limitations in or a complete lack of coverage under malpractice insurance policies,” the organizations said in a press release.
Why Acupuncturists Face ADA Web Accessibility Lawsuits
The lawsuits also highlight an important point: ADA lawsuits can impact any business that operates a “place of public accommodation,” and the Department of Justice has held that websites are places of public accommodation.
Healthcare providers are logical targets for lawsuits, since they provide crucial services to people with disabilities. When websites have accessibility issues, those patients may not be able to schedule appointments — and even if healthcare providers offer phone numbers or other booking options, all digital resources must be accessible.
Acupuncture clinics tend to be relatively small operations, but they may be especially easy targets. When researching this article, we performed basic accessibility scans on five randomly selected acupuncture clinics in the Los Angeles area.
All five websites failed to meet the Level AA requirements of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the international standards for digital accessibility.
The Unruh Act and Digital Accessibility Lawsuits
Many ADA lawsuits are filed in California, as the Unruh Act enables plaintiffs to seek statutory damages. Any violation of the ADA also constitutes a violation of the Unruh Act.
Per a recent ruling, digital-only businesses may be excepted from the Unruh Act’s requirements, but businesses with physical establishments may still face litigation. Needless to say, most healthcare providers have brick-and-mortar locations; we’ll take a wild guess and say that all acupuncturists have physical establishments.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, accessibility advocates highlighted the need for accessible digital resources. Lawsuits are one of the most powerful tools for ADA enforcement; many plaintiffs simply want providers to fulfill their legal responsibilities.
The State of Online Accessibility in Healthcare
Digital accessibility is critically important for traditional, complementary, and alternative healthcare providers. By following WCAG’s Level A/AA guidelines, organizations can provide all users with a better experience — and build towards long-term digital compliance.
Unfortunately, accessibility often takes a backseat:
- In 2021, an investigation from Kaiser Health News found widespread accessibility issues on COVID vaccine registration websites.
- An October 2022 analysis published by Stat News found that only 4.9% of hospital homepages fully conformed with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) Level AA.
- An analysis from Accessibility.com found that 143 ADA lawsuits were filed against organizations in the health & medical industry in 2022 alone.
Common Web Accessibility Issues for Healthcare Providers
WCAG provides the necessary framework for improving digital access to healthcare. The guidelines include simple pass-or-fail statements called success criteria, which address common barriers that affect internet users with disabilities:
- Low-contrast text, which may be unreadable for patients with vision disabilities.
- Poor keyboard accessibility, which impacts people who use screen readers and other assistive technologies (AT).
- Missing form labels and instructions, which can prevent AT users from scheduling appointments or using patient portals.
- Not providing a visual focus indicator, which affects AT users and keyboard-only users.
- Low-quality hyperlink text, which can make navigation difficult.
- Improper use of semantic HTML, which can make navigation unpredictable or confusing.
- Non-accessible PDFs and other web-delivered documents, which may be unreadable for users with disabilities.
Fixing these barriers creates a better user experience. Practically, it can also benefit search engine optimization (SEO) and enhance brand recognition — but to see these benefits, healthcare providers must make a commitment to accessible design.