keyboard with handicap accessibility key
While legal clarity is still pending, there are steps that can be taken to ensure that your website remains legally ADA-compliant. — Getty Images/alexsl

With website accessibility lawsuits on the rise — 3,225 were filed in federal court in 2022, marking a 12% increase from the year prior — it’s more important than ever for businesses to understand their requirements as per the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

While many major lawsuits involving the ADA are concentrated in New York and Florida, companies across the nation need to get informed, be proactive, review their websites, and deliver on promises, said Nancy Del Pizzo, partner at Rivkin Radler LLP.

To help businesses ensure all patrons can safely use their websites — and avoid any legal repercussions — CO— asked legal experts for their best advice.

[Read more: What Is the ADA, and How Does It Impact Small Business?]

High-profile cases

Several website accessibility lawsuits have gained national attention, highlighting the importance of maintaining an ADA-compliant website:

Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores

In the 2016 landmark case Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores, the grocery chain was initially found to have violated the ADA because its website was inaccessible to the blind plaintiff. Winn-Dixie complied with the Florida federal trial court’s order to update its website.

However, when the case came to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in 2021, the original ruling was overturned. The Eleventh Circuit stated the website was not considered a place of public accommodation, so it did not violate the ADA; additionally, the website did not create an “intangible barrier” to the plaintiff’s access to Winn-Dixie’s goods and services.

There still are no federal regulations or statutes governing how a commercial website can obtain sufficient accessibility for visitors with disabilities, but judicial decisions have largely looked at what is “reasonable” for the specific company being challenged, Del Pizzo told CO—.

Robles v. Domino’s Pizza, LLC

A visually impaired man filed a lawsuit against Domino’s Pizza in 2019, stating the pizza chain’s website and mobile app were inaccessible with screen readers. After being dismissed in district court, the case was brought to the Ninth Circuit, which reversed the dismissal on two grounds. First, the Domino’s website and app were found to have a “nexus” (connection) to a physical place of public accommodation (the store itself). Second, the court stated that holding businesses liable for website accessibility does not violate the due process rights of public accommodations, even without formalized federal regulations.

[Read more: How to Design an ADA-compliant Website]

The Ninth Circuit concluded that Domino’s website was not fully accessible, and a telephone line with a 45-minute wait was not considered an acceptable substitute. Robles and Domino’s ultimately reached a settlement in 2022, the terms of which have not been publicly disclosed. The court’s guidance in the case offers greater clarity than in the past for businesses, consumers, and legal teams alike.

Bishop v. Amazon.com Services, LLC

In 2018, a legally blind customer filed a lawsuit against Amazon.com, stating the site is incompatible with screen readers and refreshable Braille displays. According to the suit, websites are required to have a text equivalent for each non-text element on each page, as well as for title frames and scripts — the lack of which would make a website inaccessible for visually impaired users. While the case is still ongoing as of 2023, the filing of the lawsuit highlights critical considerations for website accessibility.

If accessibility features are inaccurately advertised or otherwise not sufficient to help customers access your business, your website may still be considered in violation of the ADA.

Tips for ADA web compliance

Until further legal clarity is established, consult the following expert tips to improve ADA digital compliance. Jeff Kosc, partner at Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP, suggests that businesses:

Consult WCAG 2.1 voluntary guidelines

In the absence of federal regulations, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is considered the “gold standard” for accessibility compliance. The most current version, WCAG 2.2, has several requirements that fall under four principles:

  • Perceivable: All patrons should be able to perceive website content through touch, sight, and sound.
  • Operable: The website should be navigable with just a keyboard and should not trigger seizures or other physical reactions.
  • Understandable: Text should be readable and easily comprehensible, and content should function and appear predictably.
  • Robust: Web content should be assistive-technology–compatible and use proper HTML and CSS coding.

These voluntary guidelines fall under three accessibility success tiers — A, AA, and AAA. The Department of Justice's guidance to date is that the Level A standard is the minimum, and the Level AA standard is the target for everybody.

Assess the entire organization

Assess the entire organization, including in-store and remote technologies. If a website is using a third party or embedded content, make sure those sources are compliant as well. Consider conducting an accessibility audit, whether internally or with an outside consultant, and reassess accessibility features regularly. User testing with individuals with disabilities can also provide valuable insights.

Additionally, Del Pizzo offers the following advice:

Review website terms of use

Make note of any accessibility features in your website’s terms of use, including those in progress. For example, if the business is in the process of adding technology to aid visually impaired viewers, consider stating that in the terms of use or the website homepage to let viewers know the business is diligently working to create a better experience for low-vision users, which was something the trial court looked for in the Winn-Dixie case.

Deliver on your promise

Provide what you offer. If a website advertises a toll-free number to aid viewers having difficulty using a screen reader, make sure someone is available to promptly respond to callers at that number. If accessibility features are inaccurately advertised or otherwise not sufficient to help customers access your business, your website may still be considered in violation of the ADA.

Here are a few more tips to ensure web design compliance:

  • Add alt text for images. Write short yet informative descriptions of any images that provide vital content. This allows customers who use screen reader technology to access all content on the page.
  • Use color contrasts. To help patrons with color blindness or other vision impairments interact with your website, ensure sufficient contrast between the page background and text, along with buttons and other elements.
  • Utilize legible fonts. Fonts should be simple, with distinguishable characters sufficiently spaced apart. Avoid thin or decorative fonts that can be difficult to read, particularly for those with vision impairments.
  • Provide clear navigation. Ensure your menus, links, and other information are easy to find and presented consistently each time. This improves the experience for all customers, allowing them to more readily find what they’re looking for.

[Read more: What Small Businesses Should Know About Disability Insurance]

This article was originally written by Denise Power.

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

CO—is committed to helping you start, run and grow your small business. Learn more about the benefits of small business membership in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, here.

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