Is Your Organization’s Website ADA Compliant?
The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) requires that “places of public accommodation” (such as banks, restaurants, stores, and professional offices) be made reasonably accessible to those with disabilities, and the U.S. Department of Justice has made it clear that websites are included in this category. In a spate of recent lawsuits across the country – brought against companies like Sears, Toys R’ Us, Brooks Brothers, Ace Hardware, the NBA, and various ski areas, to name a few – plaintiffs have brought the issue to the forefront. Several companies in ME and New Hampshire have received threatening letters from the attorneys representing those same plaintiffs. If you receive one of these letters, don’t panic – but do call your attorney right away.
What are the issues?
Typically, ADA accessibility requirements apply to physical modifications like ramps, braille signage, and wheelchair accessible bathrooms. The U.S. Department of Justice (which enforces the ADA) has made it clear that websites that advertise or offer goods or services also qualify as places of “public accommodation” and must also be accessible to people with disabilities. The crux of the issue is that some people with certain disabilities may use adaptive software to access websites, but many websites are simply not compatible with such software because of the way those websites are built. For instance, the visually impaired may use “screen readers” that read text for them as they navigate with a keyboard, but some elements of a company’s website may not be detectable by a screen reader.
However, the legal landscape is in limbo at this time. The federal government issued guidelines for its own websites in 2000, but those guidelines are outdated and are currently in the process of being updated. An independent (i.e., non-governmental) organization, the World Wide Web Consortium (“W3C”), issued a set of more comprehensive and stringent guidelines in 2008, while the DOJ is currently developing its own set of guidelines, expected in 2018. To date, however, there is no clear legal standard that has been adopted by any court. As one might expect, the above-mentioned lawsuits assert that company websites should be required to comply with the most stringent W3C standards.
So what should you do?
- If you receive a demand letter or complaint, call us immediately so we can help you assist you in accessing potential liability and in crafting an appropriate response.
- Consult with your organization’s IT department and/or your website designer to determine your website’s current level of accessibility.
- If you are in the process of designing or updating a website, be sure to raise this issue with the website designers when negotiating their contract. Call your insurance carrier to determine if you have coverage for this sort of claim