According to a report from Accessibility.com, 2,352 web accessibility lawsuits were filed against U.S. businesses in 2021 — a 14.3% increase from 2020.
Unfortunately, the rise in accessibility-related litigation is an ongoing trend. While lawsuits dipped slightly in 2020 from the previous year due to pandemic-related factors, the number of disability discrimination lawsuits have consistently increased over the past decade.
By one estimate, brands spent billions responding to web accessibility demand letters in 2020 alone, and the tally for 2021 will be significantly higher. Below, we’ll take a closer look at key statistics from the report — and explain how brands can limit their chances of litigation.
2021 Trends in Website Accessibility Lawsuits
Few businesses intentionally discriminate against people with disabilities, but when accessibility isn’t prioritized, barriers occur that prevent some users from engaging with content. Those barriers may violate Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which applies to both websites and mobile apps.
For example, many people with vision disabilities use screen readers to browse the web. If a site doesn’t include alternative text for images or consistent navigation elements, screen reader users may be unable to perceive certain content.
To improve the user experience for people with disabilities, many brands have turned to third-party accessibility overlays and widgets, which claim to ensure conformance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the most widely cited international standards for digital accessibility. Unfortunately, the best practices of accessibility cannot be automated. According to Accessibility.com’s analysis, approximately 300 targeted websites used accessibility overlays — 12.75% of the total lawsuits filed.
Other key takeaways from the analysis:
- Consumer Goods, Services, & Retail remained the most-targeted industry group with 955 digital accessibility lawsuits.
- Most lawsuits were filed in New York (1,474 lawsuits) or California (704 lawsuits).
- More than 56% of all website accessibility lawsuits in 2021 were filed by six law firms. About 22% of the lawsuits in 2021 were filed by five plaintiffs.
So, why are lawsuits rising — and what steps can organizations take to avoid becoming part of next year’s statistics?
ADA website lawsuits aren’t expected to diminish in 2022
The authors of the report note that many court systems closed temporarily in early 2020, limiting the number of cases in active litigation. However, 2021 also saw more accessibility lawsuits than 2019, and more than 30% of those lawsuits were filed in the last three months of the year.
The significant increase can be attributed to a rising awareness of the importance — and legal necessity — of digital accessibility. Thanks to high-profile court decisions (such as Robles v. Domino’s Pizza, LLC), the legal consensus holds that Title III of the ADA applies to websites, despite the law’s lack of technical standards for digital accessibility.
On numerous occasions, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has confirmed those conclusions and has proposed a rule establishing WCAG 2.0 Level AA as a reasonable standard of accessibility (the proposed rule was ultimately withdrawn).
In 2021, most website accessibility lawsuits specifically cited WCAG success criteria to highlight the impact of accessibility barriers. The bad news: 97.4% of the top one million webpages on the internet have detectable WCAG 2.0 failures, per an analysis from non-profit WebAIM (Web Accessibility In Mind).
Until brands adopt accessible design as a priority, ADA lawsuits are expected to rise each year. WCAG provides the best roadmap for building (and maintaining) accessible content that fulfills current Title III requirements.
Conformance with WCAG helps protect brands from litigation
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), and numerous international accessibility laws are based on the WCAG framework. By focusing on four principles of accessible design — perceivability, operability, understandability, and robustness — WCAG provides webmasters with crucial guidance for creating better content.
For U.S. businesses, conformance with WCAG is voluntary, but compliance with the ADA isn’t optional. Meeting the standards of WCAG 2.1 Level AA demonstrates a strong commitment to digital accessibility. More importantly, WCAG conformance ensures that every web user enjoys a better experience: Accessible websites attract more visitors, perform better in search engine rankings, and spend fewer resources on site maintenance.
To determine whether your website conforms with WCAG 2.1 Level AA, get started with a free website analysis powered by our A11Y® platform.