Digital accessibility isn’t optional. Most developed nations have laws prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities, and those laws typically apply to websites and mobile applications.
However, enforcing those laws can be difficult for several reasons. First, many laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) do not contain technical specifications to define what “accessible" means in online spaces. Secondly, most websites have a significant number of accessibility issues — and few governments have the resources to file legal action against tens of thousands of businesses every year.
With that said, brands face major consequences for violating non-discrimination laws. In 2020 alone, U.S. companies may have spent billions of dollars responding to accessibility demand letters filed under the ADA. Below, we’ll take a closer look at accessibility enforcement in the United States — and provide tips for making sure your content is fully compliant.
Web Accessibility Lawsuits and Department of Justice Investigations
In the United States, web accessibility is most commonly enforced through private litigation. The ADA allows any person with a disability to file lawsuits in Federal court for disability-based discrimination. In most states, plaintiffs may not collect monetary damages — they can only recover legal fees — but many companies settle out of court to avoid the large expenses of drawn-out cases.
The Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division may also investigate alleged violations. In these instances, the defendant is not required to pay court fees; however, they may need to pay compensatory relief and civil penalties, which can be significant. Federal law allows for maximum fines ranging from $55,000 to $75,000 for a first offense; subsequent violations carry a maximum fine of $150,000.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) typically reserves investigations for serious violations that have a real-world impact on people with disabilities. For instance, the DOJ recently came to a settlement agreement with supermarket chain Hy-Vee, Inc. for alleged accessibility issues on the company’s COVID-19 Vaccine Registration Portal.
Related: ADA Title II & Title III Requirements for Websites
How common are ADA digital accessibility lawsuits?
According to the Wall Street Journal, the number of lawsuits alleging disability-based discrimination on websites and mobile apps rose by 64% in the first half of 2021 as compared to the same period in 2020. Plaintiffs filed 1,661 lawsuits in the first six months of 2021, and most federal cases targeted e-commerce companies and firms with revenue below $50 million.
Most experts expect the number of ADA lawsuits to continue to rise in 2022 due to several factors:
- During the pandemic, consumers spent more time online, which increased awareness of the importance of digital accessibility.
- Recent court decisions (including Robles v. Dominos Pizza) have firmly established that the ADA applies to websites and mobile apps.
- Over the past several years, Colorado, California, Illinois, and other states have introduced laws requiring public and private organizations to provide accessible content.
Related: New Colorado Law Requires All Government Websites to Meet Accessibility Standards
Make sure your online content is compliant with the ADA
While the ADA doesn’t include technical specifications for digital content, there are consensus standards for web accessibility. Published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are frequently cited in disability-discrimination lawsuits — and the Department of Justice has identified WCAG Level AA as a reasonable standard for demonstrating compliance with Titles II and III of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
By conforming with the Level AA checkpoints of the latest version of WCAG, brands can limit their legal risk. However, it’s important to understand that digital accessibility has profound benefits apart from legal compliance.
Modern consumers value diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), and accessible websites help to promote brand loyalty and customer retention. Improving accessibility can improve search engine positioning, reduce development costs, and deliver a better experience for every user — regardless of their individual abilities.
Organizations can embrace digital accessibility by taking a few simple steps:
- Test all content for WCAG conformance. Use a combination of manual and automated tests to find and remediate issues.
- Publish an accessibility statement. Your statement should identify your goals, identify known accessibility issues, and provide users with a way to submit feedback about new issues.
- Create a long-term strategy for maintaining compliance. Accessibility should be a company-wide priority, not a one-time project. Work with an accessibility partner to adopt (and maintain) a best-practice approach.
The Bureau of Internet Accessibility offers resources to help brands improve accessibility — and build content that works better for all users. Start by contacting us for a consultation or get a free, confidential website analysis.