With accessibility lawsuits on the rise, follow these steps to lower your organization’s risk.
January 16, 2019
Over the past decade, one of the most concerning legal trends for organizations in the U.S. has been digital accessibility lawsuits. According to analysis by Seyfarth Shaw, 2018 was a watershed year for these lawsuits. ADA Title III lawsuits may have topped 10,000 for the first time in a calendar year, and no entity has been safe from the blitz1. In November alone, one plaintiff sued 50 universities for maintaining inaccessible websites and online documents2.
This environment of “serial litigation” has been especially prevalent in certain states; California, New York, and Florida accounted for well over 80% of the lawsuits documented in the above report. In Florida particularly, a barrage of ADA and Rehab Act complaints against public and private institutions have been perpetuated since at least 2013. Targets have included cities (Jacksonville3, Vero Beach4, St. Lucie5, Fort Myers6), counties (Lafayette County7), public universities (Florida State University8), restaurants (Hooters9, Panda Express10, Carrabba’s), supermarkets (Winn Dixie11, Sedano’s), and many others.
In Florida, akin to the rest of the country, this movement is showing no signs of slowing down. According to the South Florida Sun Sentinel, six plaintiffs accounted for over 300 digital accessibility lawsuits in 2017 alone, and those same six filed 167 suits in the first half of 201812. The complaints included organizations having websites or documents inaccessible to screen readers, or video content not captioned & audio described. The suits almost always settle out of court, with the one landmark ruling in the case of Gil v. Winn Dixie siding with the plaintiff. As a result, there is an urgent imperative for organizations both in and outside Florida to proactively make their digital content accessible or suffer the financial and social consequences associated with these lawsuits.
For organizations trying to avoid the risks of maintaining inaccessible digital environments, there is already a well-established playbook. Following these five steps is paramount for any size organization to avoiding costly litigation.
- Create a Plan – First and foremost, organizations should check with their legal counsel to ensure that accessibility is a priority, and that a comprehensive compliance plan and accessibility policy is developed and made available to the public. The compliance plan should include steps to assess and remediate accessibility for websites, apps, documents and videos, along with a dedicated, accessible method of contact for users who are experiencing accessibility issues. In conjunction, internal IT teams or vendors should be consulted to make sure they are aware of their responsibility to make digital environments accessible, and that the accessibility plan includes training for those teams.
- Assess Current Digital Assets – Most organizations with web properties should have their sites and apps audited for accessibility by an outside organization to get a baseline of what is needed. The ensuing reports will help guide future training and remediation efforts and will prove crucial in prioritizing work.
- Train & Educate Teams – Whether the accessibility fixes will be done by internal IT teams, the current IT vendor, or a digital accessibility focused vendor, organizations should ensure that those responsible for making them are well-versed in digital accessibility: what the issues are, what changes need to be made, and how to implement them.
- Make Changes & Reassess – Once the accessibility issues have been identified and teams have been trained in how to fix them, organizations should begin making changes prioritizing the most trafficked pages and documents to have the greatest immediate impact. Once the issues have been addressed, it is strongly recommended (and sometimes required) to have those sites and apps checked for usability by stakeholders in the outcomes – people with disabilities.
- Ensure Continuity of Accessibility Planning – Digital accessibility is not an end-goal, because your digital environments will ostensibly keep changing. As such, organizations must make sure that accessibility is continuously considered in any digital iterations, to avoid falling back out of compliance.
Chief Information Officer, The Viscardi Center
Michael oversees all aspects of technology at The Viscardi Center, where he implements and innovates accessibility for students, staff, and faculty.