When the Americans with Disabilities Act—the ADA—became law in 1990, websites, which are so common a part of business and life these days, did not exist. Nearly 30 years later, websites are now the driving force behind what is the most dramatic new and growing trend for lawsuits under the ADA, namely claims against owners and operators of websites. The gist of these claims is that the websites are not properly accessible to those who are visually impaired or legally blind.
The number of ADA lawsuits has increased significantly in the last four years. In 2017 alone over 7,600 lawsuits were filed as compared to a little over 2,700 such lawsuits in 2013, an increase of nearly 65%. ADA lawsuits continue on the rise in 2018 with website accessibility cases accounting for the increase. Florida and California, in particular, are two states where large numbers of lawsuits have been and are being filed.
Since website accessibility cases are not, in all likelihood, going away anytime soon, a question to ask is what is the owner and operator of a website, an owner and operator who desires to be proactive in preventing such lawsuits, to do? Are there any regulations or guidelines in effect that can be followed or implemented earlier rather than later so that such an owner or operator can prevent rather than defend a lawsuit?
Unfortunately, there are no regulations in effect that can provide guidance or direction to owners and operators of websites. The federal government has not communicated any desire to intervene on the issue. Indeed, the Department of Justice has abandoned rulemaking on website accessibility cases even though it had indicated, years earlier, that it would issue regulations. Those regulations presumably would and could provide a roadmap that owners and operators of websites currently do not have.
The only real direction that exists for owners and operations of websites at the present time comes in the form of guidelines published by the World Wide Web Consortium–or W3C—a private group of experts. These guidelines are the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). The WCAG Guidelines 2.0 were the guidelines specifically referenced by the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida, a little over a year ago, in the case of Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc., where Winn-Dixie’s website was found to have violated the rights of a visually-impaired plaintiff under the ADA.
Earlier this month, the W3C updated the WCAG Guidelines 2.0. The updated guidelines are known at the Web Accessibility Guidelines Level 2.1. These, however, are simply guidelines; they are not regulations and they are not law. For there to be clear, unequivocal direction to owners and operators of websites, equally clear and unequivocal law, in the form of regulations, is what is necessary.