Accessibility Legal Issues

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United States

As of January 9, 2017, the Standards and Guidelines of the ICT state that federal governmental electronic content shall conform to Level A and Level AA Success Criteria of the [Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)] via changes to the Section 508 laws and guidelines. That means that if a company want federal contracts or to provide services to the federal government, it has to meet those accessibility standards. Many state and local governments, state colleges, libraries, etc. also use the Section 508 guidelines — so these potential clients would also request or require accessibility at the Section 508 levels.

While officially these rules do not directly apply to non-federal-governmental websites or applications, there have been many web accessibility lawsuits with The Wall Street Journal reporting over 240 businesses being sued in federal court over sites inaccessible to the blind since 2015.

Microassist’s What Lawyers Should Know About Digital Accessibility, the ADA, and More covers a significant amount of US-based information about accessibility, including a timeline of landmark digital accessibility legal cases.

Interesting or impactful legal rulings

A Cautionary Tale of Inaccessibility: Target Corporation by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). This 2006 decision had a major impact on the Accessibility community because it successfully ruled that telling people with disabilities that they have to use a lower-feature mobile website instead of the full-featured desktop website was a violation of California law. “The [Federal] Judge found that California anti-discrimination law covers websites whether or not they are, or are connected to, a physical place, and that those aspects of Target.com’s services that are sufficiently integrated with those of physical Target Stores are covered by the ADA’s non-discrimination provisions.”

Level Access reviewed the legal rulings in 2016 in a whitepaper. Summary points include:

  • 6601 ADA Title III Lawsuits were filed in federal court in 2016, a 37% increase over 2015. Many were settled out-of-court so details are unavailable.
  • Both the US and the EU updated their compliance regulations in 2016/2017.
  • Video captions were a major issue in the education, and entertainment sectors.
  • Screen readers were a major issue in the education, and government sectors.
  • Low-vision issues and forms were a major issue in healthcare, and government sectors.
  • Major lawsuits included the Winn-Dixie case referenced below, BMI/BND Travelware (a luggage retailer) who was sued under both ADA law and a California civil rights law, Deckers Outdoor Corp (the company that makes Uggs) which is still pending, Sweetgreen (salad restaurant), Bank of America, and E*Trade.

Winn-Dixie Case Puts Spotlight on Website Accessibility/Compliance by Carol Lumpkin, Stephanie Moot and Shawn Hogue at Chain Store Age. This 2017 decision addresses the same kinds of complaints the Target case addressed — the website must be accessible because it is a gateway to the stores. Emphasis added.

This Florida case also include an entire section on vendors: It is a common practice for businesses to host links on their websites that connect them to partners, vendors, or other third parties. The Court’s ruling this week suggests that even if a business hosts a compliant website, it may be held liable for noncompliance under Title III of the ADA, if it links up to websites that are inaccessible.

The Court in Winn Dixie ruled that “There are 6 different third parties . . . who interface with Winn Dixie’s website so Winn-Dixie needs to make sure that those third parties also make sure that their websites are accessible” and “The Court also finds that the fact that third party vendors operate certain parts of the Winn-Dixie website is not a legal impediment to Winn-Dixie’s obligation to make its website accessible to the disabled. First, many, if not most, of the third party vendors may already be accessible to the disabled and, if not, Winn-Dixie has a legal obligation to require them to be accessible if they choose to operate within the Winn-Dixie website.” This language suggests that an operator or owner of an accessible website may face liability for the noncompliance of vendors that it features through its links.

In January 2018, the New York Post announced a blind woman from Manhattan filed lawsuits against more than 30 websites (mostly retail by the looks of it) for being incompatible with screen readers, and that a disabled man in Manhattan has filed 21 lawsuits for similar offenses.

Other countries

The Law Office of Lainey Feingold posts an article entitled Digital Accessibility Laws Around the Globe dated from May 2013, but last updated May 2018 (as of this writing) that keeps track of what laws and rulings may affect each of roughly 16 countries. Other cases include:

Additional Resources