According to a report from WGME in Portland, small businesses in Maine are facing a rising tide of web accessibility lawsuits filed in the state of New York.
The defendants include Lisa-Marie's Made in Maine, a Portland-based business that sells locally crafted products. Lisa-Maire Stewart, who owns the business, says that she settled her lawsuit, which was filed under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by a plaintiff with a vision disability.
"We were getting letters from all kinds of attorneys in New York saying, 'We want to take your case, we can help you with this lawsuit.' And we're like, 'What lawsuit?'” Stewart told WGME. “We totally thought it was a scam.”
Other Portland businesses have faced similar federal lawsuits filed by the same plaintiff and law firm. Many of the businesses have decided to settle, owing to the substantial costs of defending litigation in New York.
New York leads the U.S. in web accessibility lawsuits
Web accessibility lawsuits can be filed in any state, though state law affects whether those lawsuits are directly profitable for plaintiffs.
While the ADA does not allow plaintiffs to sue for damages, state and municipal laws may allow people to recover damages when plaintiffs can prove that discrimination occurred. In New York, plaintiffs often add additional claims to their cases, which can compel defendants to settle the lawsuits quickly.
According to Accessibility.com’s annual recap of U.S. web accessibility lawsuits, about 70% of the cases filed in 2022 came from New York. California was second, with about 27% of the annual total.
The ADA requires businesses to make digital resources accessible
Title III of the ADA applies to all “places of public accommodation,” which includes businesses open to the public. The Department of Justice (DOJ) has concluded that websites qualify as places of public accommodation.
And contrary to popular misconception, small businesses are frequent targets for ADA lawsuits. In June 2022, a wave of accessibility lawsuits were filed against Northern California wineries; in early 2023, independent California breweries faced similar litigation.
For business owners, it’s important to understand how ADA compliance applies to digital content:
- All content must be reasonably accessible for users with disabilities. That includes websites, mobile apps, and web-delivered documents (such as PDFs).
- Providing an accessible alternative may not ensure compliance. For example, providing a phone number for users with vision disabilities doesn’t provide an equivalent experience to an online order form.
- Many accessibility issues can be fixed without an enormous investment. Read: Web Accessibility on a Budget: How to Get Started for Free or Little Cost.
While some businesses choose to defend against ADA lawsuits, that can get expensive. Stewart says that she agreed to settle her case for $9,000, which was far less expensive than fighting the case.
Accessibility compliance isn’t always easy, but it’s achievable
As WGME notes, the ADA does not include technical standards for digital accessibility. However, the Justice Department recommends testing content against the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the international standards for web accessibility — and the U.S. government’s own Revised Section 508 standards incorporate WCAG by reference.
Businesses should test content against WCAG by using a combination of manual and automated tests. Solutions like the AudioEye Digital Accessibility Platform can make the work easier by automatically remediating certain issues. The platform also provides guidance for fixing accessibility barriers that require human judgment.
Other tips for pursuing a digital compliance strategy:
- Use automated tools to test for the most common issues. Missing alternative text (also called alt text), low-contrast text, and hyperlink issues are frequently cited in ADA web accessibility lawsuits — and those issues can be easily resolved with a bit of effort. Read: The 5 Most Common Website Accessibility Issues (And How To Fix Them).
- Publish an accessibility statement. An accessibility statement declares your goals, identifies known barriers, and provides users with a way to report issues. Read: Why Websites Need an Accessibility Statement.
- Don’t ignore the business benefits of accessibility. Following WCAG can improve compliance, but it also allows you to reach a wider audience. Accessible websites also tend to perform better in search results and make a better impression with users. Read: The Business Case for an Accessible Website.
If you’re building a plan for ADA compliance, we’re here to help. The Bureau of Internet Accessibility provides resources for small businesses, including our free graded web accessibility report.