Each year, thousands of businesses face lawsuits for alleged violations of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in places of public accommodation. ADA lawsuits are most common in California, New York, and Florida, respectively, but all businesses must comply with Title III or face potential penalties.
Under the ADA and many other accessibility laws, consumers with disabilities have the right to seek financial compensation from businesses that do not provide accessible digital content. That’s true for both websites and mobile apps; if you conduct business using the internet, you need to make sure that you’re providing an equivalent experience for all of your potential customers.
Below, we’ll address some common questions concerning accessibility litigation. If you’ve received an accessibility demand letter — or if you’re simply looking for a way to expand your audience by adopting the best practices of accessibility — our free website accessibility checklist provides an excellent starting point.
How common are ADA lawsuits for website owners?
According to a report published by Accessibility.com, U.S. businesses received 265,000 website accessibility demand letters and lawsuits in 2020. That doesn’t necessarily mean that every business was non-compliant with the ADA or other relevant accessibility laws — and many demand letters did not result in litigation.
Still, businesses pay a high price for noncompliance: Per one estimate from accessibility consultant Kris Rivenburgh, small businesses can expect to pay around $25,000 to settle a single ADA lawsuit.
Read: Brands Are Losing Billions by Not Being Digitally Accessible
Court rulings demonstrate that the ADA applies to websites
Some businesses have argued that the ADA applies only to brick-and-mortar locations, but U.S. courts have rejected those arguments. In 2019, the Supreme Court refused to overrule a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals opinion in Robles v. Domino’s Pizza, LLC. In that case, a blind plaintiff sued Domino’s for alleged accessibility issues with the company’s website and mobile app.
Domino’s argued that since the ADA does not specify technical standards for website accessibility, the law shouldn’t apply to digital content.
However, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals denied that argument, noting that “the website and app connected customers to the goods and services of Domino’s physical restaurants.” Additionally, the Department of Justice has regularly reaffirmed that the ADA applies to digital content.
Website accessibility has established rules and practices
Unfortunately, Title III of the ADA doesn’t include any technical standards for accommodating people with disabilities in online spaces. However, other federal laws — including Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which applies to federal agencies — require conformance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), WCAG is an established international standard for accessibility.
WCAG is frequently cited in accessibility lawsuits, and for good reason: It uses a principle-oriented framework to guide web design and development decisions. Following WCAG ensures that content is reasonably accessible for all users.
If you’re concerned about accessibility lawsuits, here are a few important considerations:
- WCAG has three levels of conformance: A (least strict), AA, and AAA (most strict). In U.S. court cases, Level AA conformance has been considered an acceptable level of accessibility.
- While automated tools are available for assessing WCAG conformance, automated tools have serious limitations. To limit chances of litigation, businesses should have their sites professionally audited by accessibility experts.
- Websites should be audited for conformance with the latest version of the guidelines. Currently, that’s WCAG 2.1, although the W3C is expected to publish WCAG 2.2 as an official recommendation within the next several months.
By setting a goal for WCAG conformance, your business can reduce its chances of litigation. Of course, accessibility has numerous other benefits; while ADA lawsuits are a serious concern, an accessible mindset can help you build your brand, expand your audience, and improve your customers' experience.
In other words, website accessibility is an investment, not a cost. About 61 million U.S. adults live with some form of disability. Businesses that neglect these consumers face serious consequences — regardless of whether they ever receive an ADA demand letter.