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How To Prevent a Web Accessibility Lawsuit

Oct 25, 2017

Ensuring your website is accessible makes a lot of sense. Not only does increased web accessibility help you maximize the number of people visiting your site, but it also is increasingly legally enforced, which leads to lawsuits and other legal implications for companies that don’t take the necessary steps to meet current accessibility requirements.

Why is web accessibility important?

Website accessibility refers to the ability of people with a wide range of physical and mental abilities to be able to access not just websites, but also the products, systems, services, and facilities that websites feature. Web accessibility means being able to purchase tickets, recharge transport cards, use apps, as well as any number of other services that are offered online. As more information and services migrate to the web, the business providing those services must ensure they aren’t leaving people with limited capabilities behind.

Digital composite of businessman presenting earth interface with connecting devices

Recent statistics show that around 1 in 5 people in the U.S. live with one or more disabling conditions. This adds up to more than 50 million people in the U.S. alone and more than 1.3 billion people around the world. A Firth Quadrant Analytics study also found that people with disabilities and their immediate friends and family around the world represent around $7 trillion in disposable income annually.

Americans with disabilities are about three times as likely as those without a disability to say they never go online (23% vs 8%), according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2016. This shows that there is a large portion of people in society who are missing out on using many essential services and accessing information and entertainment. The good news is that, with few exceptions, the technology needed to accomplish web accessibility isn’t difficult or expensive to implement on websites or apps if they are considered in the initial design of the sites and products.

How does disability impede web accessibility?

The following statistics show how common certain types of disabilities are and reveal how certain types of vision, hearing, and cognitive conditions can negatively affect people’s ability to access web services:

  • 2015 National Federation for the Blind statistics show that more than 7 million American adults are affected by vision impairment, including blindness, low vision, and color blindness.
  • Color blindness is extremely common and affects about 1 in 10 men.
  • More than 15% of American adults (37.5 million) report having hearing difficulties, and 2 to 3 out of every 1,000 children in the U.S. are born with a detectable level of hearing loss in one or both ears.
  • 1 in 68 children in the U.S. are on the autism spectrum.
  • Between 15% and 20% of people are affected by some form of language-based learning disability, such as dyslexia.

Better accessibility benefits everyone

It is important to remember that web accessibility features designed for the 20% of the population with disabilities can also be used by the other 80% of the population. Anyone can be affected by a situational disability where they would benefit from accessibility features:

  • Using Text-to-Speech and Voice Recognition features to access online services on a mobile device when you’re driving, or your hands are full.
  • Being able to read captions on media content when you’re in a noisy environment or a café or waiting area where you can’t rely on sound.
  • Having the option to easily magnify text if you forget your glasses or suffer a temporary eye injury.

The legal side of accessibility

A United States Court House in New York City

Having a legal framework around accessibility ensures that companies are given a clear incentive to make their web services accessible to the largest number of people possible. Many companies have rushed to embrace accessibility because of its financial and ethical benefits, but without a legal requirement to make accessibility a priority, it would take the majority of businesses much longer to implement accessibility features.

The 2010 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) outlines digital accessibility requirements for companies in the U.S. The ADA is a set of laws put in place to prevent discrimination against people with disabilities in all areas of public life such as work, school, and transport services. The Department of Justice has also made it very clear that the ADA extends to people’s right to use the internet and online services.

WCAG 2.0

The goal of WCAG 2.0 is to provide a clear methodology and a shared standard for digital accessibility that meets the needs of individuals, companies, and governments around the world. WCAG 2.0 is designed to apply to a broad range of web technologies now and in the future, as well as be easily evaluated or tested by a range of automated tools.

The guidelines help companies make sure their web content and apps are accessible on computers and mobile devices to a wide range of people with disabilities, including those with blindness and low vision, deafness and hearing loss, learning disabilities, cognitive limitations, limited movement, photosensitivity, and speech disabilities.

What happens when companies don’t comply?

Companies face substantial risk of litigation if they do not meet accessibility responsibilities. Any member of the public is well within their rights to use the accessibility legislation that exists as part of the ADA to argue that their needs are not being met by a company or public organization.

Companies that fail to take accessibility into account in planning and building their digital services face not only the risk of unhappy customers, reduced revenues, and damaged reputations, but they also face direct financial consequences. Since 2015, there have been more than 250 federal lawsuits filed in the U.S. against various organizations regarding accessibility.

Here are some of the cases that highlight companies’ requirements to meet the accessibility requirements of the ADA:

  • Disney, Netflix, and Target have all faced accessibility lawsuits. Target was forced to pay some $10 million in damages and legal fees to settle a class-action lawsuit that was brought by the National Federation of the Blind. Target was ordered to make sure its site was accessible and navigable by disabled customers.
  • Two federal judges in New York have denied the restaurant Five Guys’ and retailer Blick’s motions to dismiss lawsuits that allege their websites are inaccessible and violate the ADA.
  • The grocery chain Winn Dixie has also recently faced a lawsuit for having a website that could not be used by a blind plaintiff.
  • A federal judge ruled that the retailer Hobby Lobby can be found liable for preventing a blind plaintiff from accessing its website.

These recent legal cases demonstrate that, regardless of size or products and services provided, companies are being held to ADA requirements. It is good business to allow as many people as possible to access your company’s products and services, and there are very real legal and financial consequences involved.

The cost of accessibility

Incorporating accessibility features, such as captions or text-to-speech capabilities, in a website does involve additional costs to organizations and developers. But there is also opportunity cost associated with not providing those features, effectively preventing customers from being able to access your site and services.

Closeup image of a businessman hand holding bills of US dollar in fistTesco, the United Kingdom’s largest grocery retailer, provides a great example of accessibility changes making rather than costing a company money. Tesco spent an additional £35,000 ($46,200) on web development to make its website accessible and found that it immediately resulted in additional site traffic from people who had previously been unable to access their online services. As a result of that small initial cost, Tesco now attracts a far wider audience and estimates that the changes created an additional £13 million ($17.16 million) in annual revenue.

How to make websites accessible

The WCAG guidelines outline principles and techniques for making web content

“perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust.” This means that users should be able to access content, use interactive elements, understand and navigate content, and use the content on their chosen device.

These are the three most important ways to achieve those goals for website content:

  • Ensure that website designers and developers use HTML, CSS, and JavaScript correctly.
  • Organize content properly and logically so that both humans and machines can interpret the layout, including using text alternatives for all visual content. YouTube, for example, designed its platform to automatically add captions to video uploads.
  • Supplement HTML and other code with extra attributes where necessary so that assistive devices, such as screen readers, can be used effectively.

Other common assistive devices to consider are Braille readers for hearing/reading text or images, screen magnifiers for low vision users, and keyboard or joystick navigators for people who cannot use a mouse or standard input controls.

Accessibility testing

Modern cyber woman with matrix eye concept“You have to invest the resources into understanding if your website does have accessibility issues. That's a must, because once you do that you can put a remediation plan into place with some definite benchmarks. Then know you're making progress over however long you think it's going to take to do the remediation efforts.”

Web Accessibility and the Law Interview:
Christian Antkowiak, a shareholder at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney 


Automated testing

The first step in automated testing involves running a test against the WCAG 2.0 principles. Automated testing can identify 20% to 30% of the compliance issues and are a starting point to familiarize yourself with the WCAG requirements. 

Manual testing

Accessibility testing software is not infallible. These tests don't possess the subtleties needed to identify areas of only partial compliance with regulations. Manual testers can provide a multitude of test including using keyboard-only testing schemes to identify where issues might occur for people who cannot use mouse or touch interfaces to access the web. This involves testing all interactive parts of the site:

  • Tab: Should move users between all interactive elements.
  • Return/Enter: Should allow users to select links or buttons.
  • Up and down arrows: Should let users select a button from a set, or an option from a selected element.
  • Spacebar: Should enable users to select a choice from a selected element or to check a checkbox.

Other manual tests include testing pages and case scenarios with a screen reader or a screen reader emulator to experience how a webpage will respond to a user that wants to use text-to-speech capabilities.

BoIA clients receive a breakdown of all checkpoints that don’t comply with the WCAG 2.0 A/AA standards. By blending the automated computerized results with those identified by our manual testers, we provide our clients with a comprehensive view of any accessibility issues within their websites and/or mobile applications.


Digital technologies have become so widespread that they now influence almost every aspect of our everyday lives. We can use our smartphones, equipped with any number of apps, to complete a huge variety of tasks from information searches to purchasing tickets, using public transport, or paying bills. These tasks have been identified by the Department of Justice as essential for modern living, and it is therefore vital that people with disabilities are not prevented from also being able to take advantage of these types of services and opportunities.

All organizations, large and small, should make sure they are aware of their accessibility obligations, and in doing so, they will mitigate their risk of facing an accessibility lawsuit while maximizing their revenue base. Wider accessibility means a better online experience for everyone.


Is your web accessibility knowledge up-to-date? Find out today with our 2-minute web accessibility quiz.


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