Does your business’s website need to follow every requirement in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)?
The short answer: no, not necessarily. While the Department of Justice recommends using WCAG to ensure that your content is accessible, WCAG is a voluntary standard.
The outcome of a recent lawsuit, Gomez v. Trinitas Cellars, shows that perfect WCAG conformance isn’t required for ADA compliance — but if an accessibility barrier denies people with disabilities “full and equal access" to your website, it needs to be addressed.
What Andrew Gomez v. Trinitas Cellars Means for Digital Accessibility
In 2021, Andres Gomez, who has a vision disability, filed a lawsuit against Trinitas Cellars, a California winery, alleging that the company’s website wasn’t accessible.
The lawsuit cited several specific accessibility barriers as identified by WCAG and the government’s own Section 508 standards (which are based on WCAG 2.0):
- “Images on the website lack a text-equivalent readable by [screen readers],” as required by WCAG 2.1 Success Criterion (SC) 1.1, “Non-text Content.”
- “The website contains script elements that are not identified with functional text readable by [screen readers],” as required by WCAG 2.1 SC 1.3.1, “Info and Relationships.”
- “The visualization of the webpage contains impermissibly low contrast enabling differentiation of background and foreground elements.” as required by WCAG 2.1 SC 1.4.3, “Contrast (Minimum).”
But according to District Judge William H. Orrick, the plaintiff failed to show how these issues acted as barriers.
“It seems possible, for instance, that Gomez was still able to read the webpage with [a screen reader] despite its contrast, that the unidentified images were not material, and that the unidentified script elements did not impact the experience of reading the webpage,” Orrick wrote. “The pleading is too vague to assess if this is so.”
To make a claim under the ADA’s Title III, plaintiffs must show how website issues denied them “full and fair enjoyment" of the business’s services. In other words, simply identifying the existence of an accessibility barrier isn’t enough — regardless of whether that barrier is specifically identified in WCAG.
Web accessibility lawsuits carry heavy costs for businesses
But even when defendants successfully argue against web accessibility lawsuits, in most cases, they face hefty legal fees. After the dismissal of the Trinitas Cellars case, the winery asked the court to require Gomez to pay the business’s legal expenses; the court denied the motion.
According to one analysis, legal fees for settling a website accessibility lawsuit can cost upwards of $5,000. Fighting an ADA lawsuit can cost thousands more, and that’s not considering the costs of accessibility remediation or plaintiff’s legal fees — both of which businesses must pay if they lose.
“Perfect" website accessibility doesn’t exist, but WCAG provides a framework for making improvements
No website is perfectly accessible for 100% of users. However, businesses must take reasonable efforts to comply with the requirements of the ADA. That means eliminating barriers that are likely to affect real-life users, including digital accessibility barriers.
With the number of web accessibility lawsuits rising, every business should have a plan for compliance. WCAG is frequently cited in ADA lawsuits for a reason: As the international guidelines for accessibility, WCAG is an objective and reasonable standard.
WCAG outlines three levels of conformance: Level A (least strict), Level AA, and Level AAA (most strict). Most businesses should aim for Level AA conformance. Read more about the differences between WCAG Level A, AA, and AAA.
Following all WCAG Level A/AA criteria has numerous benefits outside of compliance. About 61 million U.S. adults live with a disability, and businesses that ignore these consumers miss an opportunity to connect with a wide audience.
Build a strategy for ADA compliance
If you’ve received an ADA demand letter or you want to build an accessibility initiative that reduces your legal risk, we’re here to help.
The Bureau of Internet Accessibility can help you understand WCAG and create a long-term strategy to earn, prove, and maintain digital compliance. Send us a message to connect with one of our experts or get started with a free website analysis.