3 Lessons from the Current Explosion of ADA Website Compliance Lawsuits

Tom Snyder photo by Tom Snyder on Sep 30, 2019

For nearly two decades now, websites have been subject to federal ADA website compliance requirements. And for just as long, many businesses and organizations with websites have ignored them.

But it’s wake up time. Since the number of federal website accessibility lawsuits has skyrocketed 177 percent since 2018, we’ve seen site owners now choosing to bring their sites into compliance with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). While some are doing so because they’ve been ordered by courts to do it to settle lawsuits, a growing number are doing it to avoid lawsuits.

Having performed several ADA website compliance audits, and one full-scale compliance upgrade, here are three (of many) things to know about ADA compliance standards for websites:

1.) Accessibility over art.  Website designers who focus on killer creative and unique designs to showcase their creativity are the antithesis of accessibility. By their very nature, sites like these are designed to communicate visually, thus they are fundamentally unusable to the visually impaired. Sites like these often cannot be navigated entirely by tab keys or be read by screen reader software, and so will never be able to pass the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines tests. 

If ever forced to comply with ADA standards, these sites will incur the greater hassle and expense of a total re-architecture, redesign and rebuild to conform to the more conventional standards of their less exciting best practice accessible counterparts. Accessibility is not a bolt-on afterthought; it's better to start out with it as a goal.

2.) Themed sites fail. To save time and money on website development, many companies hire developers who build websites on Wordpress themes purchased at places like Theme Forest. We’ve found that many themes out there make compliance harder, not easier. Every site we tested that uses the world’s most popular Wordpress theme failed a WCAG 2.0 AA compliance scan. Many had an even lower score than the sites currently being sued for non-compliance. Even the websites we scanned using themes advertised as ADA compliant show compliance scan scores only slightly higher than those with no implied compliance whatsoever.   
Because so many of the front and back end elements that impact ADA compliance in these sites come baked into the themes, modifications to them are beyond the capabilities of many of the web developers who use them. Not finding that out about your website and your developer until after an ADA lawsuit will be an expensive mistake.

3.) Don’t try this at home. Rarely will you be able to achieve ADA website compliance on your own. If you become the target of a lawsuit, you’ll need professional legal representation to define the necessary actions that will satisfy a court-ordered judgement. But whether it’s a judge’s order, or just a preventative effort to avoid a lawsuit, many of the website elements you will need to address to achieve compliance with the WCAG standards are well above the skill levels of most internal site administrators. For one of our recent ADA website compliance projects, the high talent level of our client’s internal team allowed them to do much of the mandatory work. But it still required our help. We divided the tasks between their internal team and ours and tackled the issues together. Bottom line, that client fixed what they could and even with their expertise still needed external specialists to get the job done completely.

Current ADA website noncompliance lawsuits are focusing on the tourism, hospitality and entertainment industries, education and healthcare. But future legal actions are expected to expand to include most categories of B2C websites, and eventually B2B websites. Lawyers won’t sue individual sites, but they are expected to include hundreds of individually named sites in huge group actions. Their expense for to name you will be negligible, but the expense for you to defend your suit and eventually make your site ADA compliant will be much higher. 

Don’t let it get that far. ADA website accessibility improves user experience those with disabilities -- and for your other users too. In addition, compliant sites are better for SEO and conversion ratio metrics. We can help. We’re testing sites for ADA compliance in advance of our next Trivera Lunch and Learn, which is set for Oct. 10. Sign up today.

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