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Judge Seeks Clarity in Website Accessibility Case for the Visually Impaired

Sep 12, 2017

The lack of oversight for website accessibility requirements denies rights to people with disabilities and puts companies at risk of litigation. This issue recently returned to the center stage in a case against a well-known franchise that resulted in a judge's unprecedented call to the U.S. Department of Justice to weigh on the breadth of the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) regarding web accessibility.

With the rise of online traffic in the early 21st century, the U.S. government, as well as business leaders in various industries, recognized that the need for regulation and compliance was mounting. Accordingly, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which was created in 1993 and developed the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) in 2005. This set of guidelines created a universal standard for website accessibility.

Recent lawsuits have encouraged online compliance, including the current suit in California against the national chain Pizza Hut, which is owned by Yum! Brands Inc. This suit was spurred by Guillermo Robles, a man with visual impairments who struggled to use the company's website to place orders. As a result, Robles filed a suit stating that the corporation was effectively discriminating against the visually impaired. He and his legal team called upon the ADA to bolster his suit.

Similarly, a landmark ruling in July 2017, Florida Federal Judge Robert Scola mandated that the Jacksonville-based grocery chain Winn-Dixie, which owns hundreds of stores across Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Georgia, would need to update its website to accommodate clientele with visyal impairments after an original complaint levied against the company by Juan Carlos Gil.

Still other suits lobbied against online giants, such as Amazon and Target, have also proven successful in garnering more equal online access to the disabled. Meanwhile, though, Robles filed an earlier (and similar) suit against Domino's Pizza LLC, also owned by Yum! Brands, but was eventually denied the accessibility he had requested.

In light of this contradictory precedent, U.S. District Judge Otis D. Wright II, who is presiding over the Robles v. Pizza Hut lawsuit, issued a stay in the trial and asked that the DOJ provide further clarity as to the full parameters of the ADA, including addressing whether the stipulation for accommodation applies to virtual storefronts as well as brick-and-mortar locations.

Although the delay is undoubtedly a frustration for Mr. Robles and his legal team, it is an encouraging step from the standpoint that it might bring clarity to the ADA's long-absent interpretation. In an era where internet accessibility is in demand — Attorney General Jeff Sessions has relegated "website regulation" to a list of inactive areas of legislative interest— this judge's call to the DOJ might be a pivotal moment in the quest for equal internet access for everyone.

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