Physical Disabilities in a Virtual World

chris-mcintire-photoBusinesses and public entities who routinely utilize their website to conduct business should be aware that there has been a steady increase in the number of lawsuits filed by disabled customers who cannot access websites.  The complaints have ranged from websites that could not be navigated without a mouse, websites disabling or otherwise making it difficult for accessibility software on the site visitor’s own computer to make full use of the site, and websites that do not include options to assist a visitor who is disabled.

In 2010, Hilton Worldwide was the subject of a Department of Justice (DOJ) suit for multiple violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  One violation involved the reservation website, which did not allow visitors to book ADA accessible rooms online.  Hilton explained that their website design software limited the number of room options in their dropdown menu; therefore they did not include the ADA accessible options in the menu.  Ultimately, Hilton was forced to accept a wide ranging consent decree from the DOJ that included, for the first time, specific instructions regarding website accessibility.  As part of the DOJ consent decree, Hilton was ordered to comply with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which included making all options available for visitors who wanted to book a room.

In addition to Hilton Worldwide, AOL, Charles Schwab, Netflix, Target, eBay, Ticketmaster and Travelocity have all either been sued or worked with advocacy groups to avoid litigation.  In the Target class action suit, Target paid $6,000,000 and installed online screen reading software on their website.  This is the first time a federal court decreed that an online store must provide accessible website service to disabled persons (National Federation of the Blind v. Target Corporation, 452 F.Supp.2d 946. N.D. Cal. 2006).

Public entities also need to make sure their websites are not in violation of the ADA. Can a disabled visitor do everything online that any other visitor can do?  If you stream or post video/audio of public meetings is there an option to get close captioning?  Is there a way for a disabled visitor to get help if they are having problems, either in real time or within 24 hours?

The Department of Justice is working on cyber ADA guidance, which they hope to roll out in 2018.  Until then, businesses and public entities who routinely utilize their website to conduct business should follow the steps below to avoid a potential lawsuits filed by a disabled customer who cannot access their websites.

1.)  Make sure your IT department is in compliance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, which can be located online.

2.)  Provide website visitors with options.  Can visitors navigate the website with just a keyboard?  Can forms be filled out without a mouse?  Do you use “Alt-text” to describe photos, allowing text-to-voice software to describe photos they cannot see, and making sure any downloadable PDF files can be accessed by the visitor using assistive technology?  Can visitors increase text size, either using a feature on their own browser or by clicking on a page link to enable a larger font?

3.)  Keep it simple.  Website developers may want to create a cutting-edge site, however all those bells and whistles can disrupt a visitor’s accessibility, especially if the visitor has assistive technology on their computer.

We may never get it perfect.  We just have to strive to “get it right.”  There will always be new technology, and as clients adapt to new technology, attorneys at CMDA are available to provide guidance to ensure businesses and public entities who routinely utilize their website to conduct business avoid lawsuits filed by disabled customers who cannot access websites.

Christopher A. McIntire, an attorney in our Riverside, California office focuses his practice on public entity, schools, employment, ADA compliance, mass tort and premises liability defense. He may be reached at (951) 276-4405 or cmcintire@cmda-law.com.