In an unprecedented trial over website accessibility, a Florida judge has ruled that the national grocery chain Winn-Dixie must update its website to comply with the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements for the visually impaired. The result of one man's ambitious campaign, the ruling is setting a new bar for accessibility compliance across industries.
With internet commerce at an all-time high — the Statistic Brain Research Institute reports that more than 85% of Americans have perused online marketplaces — website accessibility is of utmost importance. Yet ADA compliance for websites remains a relatively avoided topic for many companies and institutions. ADA rules are intended to require accessibility in any "place of public accommodation." It is now clear that the internet is included in this jurisdiction.
This case begins to chip away at any remaining ambiguity, and it is all thanks to Juan Carlos Gil, a Miami resident who is legally blind and thus requires a screen reading device to assist with his online activities. Hundreds of sites that Gil relied upon were designed to function well with the reading software, but he found repeated issues with the website of Winn-Dixie, through which Gil fills his prescriptions. Seeking access to both the pharmacy and the store hours proved impossible for Gil, so he filed a complaint against the company that escalated into a suit against the company, filed on July 12, 2016.
Though no such suit has proven fruitful in past, Gil's efforts resulted in a two-day bench trial in early June 2017. Shortly afterward, Miami federal Judge Robert Scola sent down a 13-page verdict stipulating that Winn-Dixie was indeed in violation of ADA standards. In his statement, Judge Scola concluded, “Winn-Dixie has violated the ADA because the inaccessibility of its website has denied Gil the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations that Winn-Dixie offers to its sighted customers.” Given this conclusion, Scola mandated that the Jacksonville-based corporation, which owns hundreds of stores across Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Georgia, would need to update its website accordingly.
Although Gil asked for no damages in the suit, accept for the payment of his legal fees, Winn-Dixie has now earmarked $250,000 to update and improve their website. This additional sum is on top of a $7 million revamp of the company's website in September 2015, and yet company and court records suggest that little — if any — of that substantial sum went into the consideration of accessibility concerns. The company conceded in their courtroom testimony that they were working on the appropriate changes to improve the compatibility of screen-reader software with their website, an accommodation that outside experts suggest should cost only a fraction of their earmarked budget.
These improvements are bound to make Juan Gil's life easier, but his legal triumph reflects an important step toward the universal application of ADA regulations. As Gil's case shows, internet sites must adopt ADA legislation not only in consideration of their customers, but also in recognition of an increasingly expanding and diverse online community.