Updated: October 31, 2022
People with disabilities use the internet as much as (and possibly more than) those without disabilities. Like anyone else, they want to take advantage of the convenience it offers, from depositing checks without leaving the house to ordering pad-thai delivery without picking up a phone. However, because an estimated 26% of the U.S. population with a disability may access the web slightly differently than those without a disability, they frequently encounter barriers that prevent them from having an equal experience. In the eyes of the law, these barriers are no different from a physical barrier that prevents their entry into a public space. In this context, it’s no wonder that digital accessibility lawsuits have skyrocketed over the past few years, reaching just over 11,000 in 2019. This is an almost 9% increase from 2018 and a massive 44% increase from 2017.
The number of ADA web accessibility lawsuits have continued to climb, with 2895 lawsuits filed in federal courts in 2021, which represents a 14% increase from 2020, during which time there were 2523 such suits which reflects a 12% increase when compared with 2256 lawsuits filed in 2019. Some industry experts have made predictions that the number of lawsuits may exceed 4400 by the end of 2022, which would equate to a colossal 51% increase over 2021. It is important to note that these figures do not take into consideration demand letters that did not or may not result in litigation or lawsuits filed in state courts.
One of the more headline-grabbing lawsuits of late involves Domino’s Pizza. In 2016, Guillermo Robles filed a lawsuit against Domino’s Pizza alleging he was unable to order a pizza using assistive technology. The case almost made it to the Supreme Court, but in late 2019 the Supreme Court denied Domino’s petition for a writ of certiorari, which was Domino’s attempt to appeal the Ninth Court’s decision to overturn a dismissal this lawsuit. This dismissal was a positive sign for disability advocates everywhere.
Following six intense years of litigation through the federal judicial system, including the Supreme Court, a Notice of Settlement was filed with the District Court indicating that the parties have reached a settlement in June 2022. However, the terms of the settlement are not currently known, and we may never know what form the resolution will take or if it will remain confidential.
What factors have influenced this rise in lawsuits?
The very first high-profile digital accessibility lawsuit, Maguire v SOCOG, was filed at the end of the 20th century; our reliance on the internet has grown exponentially since then. It was only a matter of time before people with disabilities began to experience the same frustrating exclusion they once faced before the Americans with Disabilities Act was made into law.
A turning point for the astronomical rise in digital accessibility lawsuits may have been the historic Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc., in which the court decided in favor of the plaintiff in 2017. It was the first digital accessibility lawsuit brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and found that websites may constitute “public accommodations.” (Note that the Department of Justice has stated for many years that this is the case, most recently in a 2018 letter to the Senate that was in response for clarification on this very issue.)
Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc. was an empowering milestone for the disability community, one that may have compelled many individuals to file lawsuits against other organizations with inaccessible content. Where before they felt they had no agency, people with disabilities now had a way to fight for equal access.
How to lower your risk
While no organization can ever be 100% protected from digital accessibility lawsuits (much in the way that no business can be fully protected against any potential lawsuit), there are steps you can take to lower your risk.
Know where you stand
If you are missing a few alternative text tags or have some minor accessibility barriers, your risk for a lawsuit is lower than it would be if your site was massively inaccessible. But you won’t know your site’s level of accessibility unless you do some testing first. TPGi offers a free automated web accessibility scan that will give you a sense of the magnitude of remediation your website might need to become accessible.
Start making accessibility improvements
Even minor improvements in accessibility show that your organization is trying to accommodate people of all abilities. While you may not have the time or the resources at this moment to do all the remediation you’d like to, you have to start somewhere. Small improvements are better than nothing!
Put accessibility first
When you design or create content with accessibility in mind, you actively reduce the amount of remediation you’ll have to do in the future. This doesn’t mean you can ignore your existing accessibility barriers, but it does reduce future risk. Not only that, but improving accessibility will result in a better experience for all users.
Focus on your critical user paths
As mentioned previously, a website that has minor accessibility barriers generally has a lower risk of becoming the target of a lawsuit. However, websites that prevent a user from performing a critical task (like, say, ordering a pizza) have a much higher risk of frustrating someone so much they decide to take action.
People with disabilities are used to minor inconveniences – this is the world they live in – but, unsurprisingly, they get tired of not being able to perform a task that would otherwise be possible if not for their disability.
The future of digital accessibility lawsuits
Judging by the past few years, digital accessibility lawsuits under Title III of the ADA will not be declining any time soon – unless, of course, organizations start prioritizing accessibility! By industry experts’ predictions, 2022 may yet again break the record for digital accessibility lawsuits.
Don’t let your organization ignore this risk. Contact us today for your free website accessibility scan or a consultation on how you can lower your risk and improve your customer experience.