A recent wave of web accessibility lawsuits has some California wineries rethinking their approach to digital content.
According to a report from the North Bay Business Journal, more than 70 digital accessibility lawsuits have been filed in federal court against North Coast vintners over the past several months. Nearly all of the cases were opened by one plaintiff, Andres Gomez, a Miami resident who is legally blind.
The lawsuits allege accessibility barriers on wineries' websites, citing Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Court records indicate that about one-third of the lawsuits have reached settlements. The terms of court settlements are confidential, but the North Bay Business Journal notes that similar cases have received settlements of $10,000 or more.
Several wineries have taken aggressive steps to respond to the wave of lawsuits. Some California prosecutors have filed lawsuits against ADA plaintiffs, alleging abuse of California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act, which complements the ADA by expanding litigation rights for people with disabilities.
However, for many vintners, settling lawsuits is a much cheaper option. While responding to an ADA demand letter may cost upwards of $20,000, the costs of a long-term legal battle are much higher.
Why Wineries Are Facing Web Accessibility Lawsuits
The wine industry has adopted innovative technologies in some respects — for example, many winery grounds now use advanced tools to monitor ground conditions and optimize harvests. However, as with many niche industries, wine producers frequently prioritize visual style when establishing their websites, neglecting the best practices of modern web design.
The National Association of American Wineries (also known as WineAmerica) has held conferences promoting ADA compliance, instructing members to follow the Level AA standards of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), WCAG is the consensus international standard for digital accessibility.
“WineAmerica recommends that all wineries make sure their websites are accessible for those individuals with vision impairments,” the organization’s website reads. “In order to correctly do this, we do recommend [that] wineries consult both a lawyer and an IT professional.”
Accessibility Issues Cited in ADA Compliance Lawsuits
Unfortunately, most websites fail to follow WCAG, which allows for potential litigation under the ADA and similar laws. Some of the most common access barriers cited in web accessibility lawsuits include:
- Poor color contrast. Color contrast is the difference in light between foreground elements (such as text) and their background. An estimated 86% of homepages fail to meet WCAG requirements for color contrast.
- Images of text. WCAG Success Criterion 1.4.5 requires websites to use text instead of images of text in most circumstances. Images of text may present issues for people with vision disabilities and people who use assistive technology to browse the internet.
- Missing alternative text (also called alt text) for images. Accurate alt text enables users to understand the purpose and function of images without perceiving them visually.
- Missing captions for videos. Per WCAG, all pre-recorded multimedia should have accurate captions to accommodate Deaf users, people with cognitive disabilities, and other individuals.
- Poor keyboard accessibility. Many people use the keyboard alone (no mouse) to browse the internet. Wineries often have shopping portals, which can present barriers for these users without appropriate accommodations.
In a non-scientific review of a dozen winery websites, the Bureau of Internet Accessibility found WCAG conformance failures on every home page tested.
How Wineries Can Adopt Digital Accessibility
Many wineries have limited budgets for web development, and accessibility improvements may seem like an unnecessary expense. That’s not the case: About 1 in 4 American adults have some form of disability, and the number of people with disabilities is expected to grow over the next decade as the population ages.
Websites that have accessibility issues miss an opportunity to reach a wide audience — and since digital accessibility is required under the ADA, wineries take real risks by ignoring users with disabilities. Settling an ADA lawsuit can cost thousands of dollars, while fighting a lawsuit in federal court can cost much more.
And since accessible design improves search engine optimization, reduces website maintenance costs, and enhances the user experience, every winery should set a goal for WCAG conformance. Some tips for getting started:
- Review WCAG to learn about the principles of accessibility. WCAG is written for a general audience and contains useful guidance for adopting an accessible mindset.
- Test your website for WCAG conformance. Automated WCAG tests can identify many accessibility issues. While manual tests are necessary to ensure compliance, an automated test is an excellent first step.
- Publish an accessibility statement. An accessibility statement outlines your goals and the steps taken towards WCAG conformance. A well-written statement — when supported with real action — may help to protect against litigation.
- Work with trained accessibility experts when making changes. Remediation requires a careful approach, and expert guidance can help you keep your project on an established timeframe (and within your budget).