The large number of people who have disabilities, coupled with the challenges that they face, is one of the reasons that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990.² As its name suggests, the ADA is designed to protect individuals with disabilities in the United States. The ADA essentially makes it illegal for any government entity or business to provide goods and services to the general public without ensuring that the entities are accessible by people with disabilities. In today’s digitally driven world, many businesses fail to follow web accessibility best practices. In fact, this is why the Supplemental Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (SANPRM) was created by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). To ensure that they are implementing digital accessibility best practices, organizations are encouraged to use the WCAG 2.1 technical requirements.³
Title IV of the ADA amended the landmark Communications Act of 1934 primarily by adding section 47 U.S.C. § 225. This section requires that all telecommunications companies in the U.S. take steps to ensure functionally equivalent services for consumers with disabilities, notably those who are deaf or hard of hearing and those with speech impairments. When Title IV took effect in the early 1990s, it led to the installation of public teletypewriter (TTY) machines and other TDD (telecommunications devices for the deaf). Title IV also led to the creation, in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, of what was then called dual-party relay services and now are known as Telecommunications Relay Services (TRS), such as STS relay. Today, many TRS-mediated calls are made over the Internet by consumers who use broadband connections. Some are Video Relay Service (VRS) calls, while others are text calls. In either variation, communication assistants translate between the signed or typed words of a consumer and the spoken words of others. In 2006, according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), VRS calls averaged two million minutes a month.
What’s in store for 2018? If the Ninth Circuit upholds the Domino’s district court’s dismissal on due process grounds, the number of California website accessibility lawsuits in federal court may go down dramatically. Even if that occurs, we see no end to the website accessibility lawsuit surge elsewhere and expect that new plaintiffs’ firms will continue to enter the scene. While the current administration’s DOJ is not likely to push the website accessibility agenda, its inaction will not stop the lawsuits. Only an amendment to the ADA can do that, which we believe is highly unlikely. Thus, the best risk mitigation effort for covered entities is still to make their websites accessible as soon as possible, with the assistance of ADA Title III legal counsel experienced in website accessibility issues and reputable digital accessibility consultants.
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The first trial in a website accessibility lawsuit took place in 2017. Florida U.S. District Judge Scola presided over this bench trial and concluded that grocer Winn Dixie had violated Title III of the ADA by having an inaccessible website. Judge Scola also found that the $250,000 cost to remediate Winn Dixie’s website was not an “undue burden” and ordered Winn Dixie to make its website conform with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 AA (WCAG 2.0 AA).
Recent years have seen an uptick in federal lawsuits filed against businesses and governments, alleging that their website violates the ADA by being insufficiently accessible to people with disabilities. In 2017, there were at least 814 such lawsuits against organizations in a variety of industries, from banks and credit unions to restaurants and e-commerce websites. The defendants include small businesses as well as major corporations such as Nike, Burger King, and the Hershey Company.