Businesses ‘sitting ducks’ for lawsuits because websites aren’t ADA compliant

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TAMPA (WLFA) – The disabled plaintiffs call themselves activists working to improve society for the disabled, one lawsuit at a time.

Critics call it “legal extortion,” now targeting small business owners who feel they are “sitting ducks” for ADA lawsuits regarding their websites that are not accessible to some with disabilities.

Last year, there were 2,285 ADA website lawsuits filed in federal courts across the nation, an increase of a 181 percent from 2017, according to website accessibility company UsableNet. The majority of lawsuits originate in Florida and New York.

“The attorneys are telling us, ‘You can’t fight this. There’s nothing you can do, just write them a check,’” said Ben Tundis, owner of Island Comfort Footwear in the Westfield Countryside Mall in Clearwater.

Tundis is one of 175 business owners sued by Emily Fuller, of Broward County, a visually-impaired woman holding businesses accountable if they have websites that are not ADA compliant. Fuller, in her lawsuit filed Jan. 4, claims that she was not able to use the recently launched website of Tundis’ shoe store.

Fuller uses a screenreader to use the Internet and claims the shoe store’s website lacked coding that would communicate with her software. This excluded her from shopping on the website, which is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to the lawsuit.

Lawsuits like this one are being filed by the stackful, typically by one plaintiff working with a handful of lawyers who are gaining notoriety for these types of cases.

South Florida attorneys Pelayo Duran and Roderick Hannah represent Fuller. Duran tells 8 On Your Side’s Better Call Behnken that clients like Fuller are providing a needed service for society to insure that websites are ADA compliant and accessible to all.

“It’s a very good thing for society that plaintiffs like Ms. Fuller are providing,” Duran said. “I want to make sure you understand that it’s not about attacking small businesses.”

Fuller has gone after big names, such as Sephora, Helzberg Diamonds, The Home Depot and Chick-fil-A, claiming their websites are not ADA compliant. Some of her recent cases are against the Clearwater shoe store, an active wear boutique in Orlando called Sassy Pants and Tampa Sportservice Inc, the company that runs a store that sells Tampa Bay Lightning apparel inside Amalie Arena.

In most cases, private businesses can’t be sued for damages, under the ADA, says Anastasia Protopapadakis, an ADA defense attorney with the Miami firm Gray-Robinson. Businesses are sued for attorney fees and compliance. Businesses who agree to settlements or lose their cases must pay attorney fees and agree to become ADA compliant within a set amount of time, she said.

Some legal experts, and even some advocates for the disabled, say plaintiff lawyers are taking advantage of businesses that don’t realize they are doing anything wrong. Instead of reaching out to the businesses and asking for compliance, they sue.

Protopapadakis calls these lawsuits, “corporate extortion” and urges business owners to take a serious look at their websites and make sure that a person with visual or hearing disabilities can use their site.

She said most businesses faced with this type of lawsuit settle the case for attorney fees and compliance. That’s because that is cheaper than litigation.

Experts say these lawsuits are typically settled for between a couple of thousand dollars and $20,000, but could cost much more if defendants chose to fight in court.

“Any case appealed to the 11th Circuit has not gone the defendants’ way,” Protopapadakis said.

Protopapadakis said while plaintiffs don’t receive money for damages, some do receive money in exchange for keeping settlement details confidential.

Further frustrating businesses, there are no federal regulations to give businesses a check list of what they must do to make their websites ADA accessible. The ADA was established in 1990, before websites like we have today. One thing is clear, though, courts have ruled that most websites must be accessible under the ADA.

While there are no clear regulations pertaining to websites in the ADA, courts have recognized web accessibility standards called Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG), created by an international consortium of volunteers.

Some of the requirements:

Content must be coded for audio translation by screen-reader software.
There must be on-screen captions in videos for screen-reader software to read to the blind and descriptions for the deaf.
Sites must include accessible drop-down menus for those who use a keyboard as an alternative to a mouse.
These are requirements that every website should have under the ADA, said Chris Danielsen, of the National Federation of the Blind.

Danielsen, who is blind, said he uses screen-reader software every day to access the Internet and runs into problems on a regular basis because websites lack the appropriate coding.

However, he said mass lawsuits, especially those filed by one plaintiff with an attorney, concern him. He said negotiation and education should come first. He also feels that settlements should not be confidential, so the public knows the terms and knows the plan for accessibility for each site.

“Rather than spraying businesses with a firehose of litigation, a much more thoughtful and transparent approach would be a better form of advocacy,” Danielsen said.

Danielsen recommends business owners make sure their website developers know how to make your website compatible. There are several companies that specialize in website compatibility. The National Federation of the Blind has resources on its website to help businesses. Locally, the Lighthouse for the Blind can review websites and offer guidance.

So, who must be accessible? That depends on where the business is located. In the 11th Judicial Circuit, which includes Florida, websites that are connected to a physical store must be accessible to those who are visually and hearing impaired.

Accessibility can get costly, depending on what type of website you have, and whether you do it when you first develop the website or later, said Teresa Huber, president of Get ADA Accessible, which focuses on website accessibility.

She said a simple, 10-page website would cost about $1,600 for a firm like hers to audit and identify accessibility issues. The cost of fixing the website would depend on deficiencies, she said.

One small business recently sued by Emily Fuller is Sassy Pants Active Wear Boutique in Orlando. Owner Donna Anthony says she hasn’t been served the lawsuit yet, but she is concerned.

“I never in my wildest dreams thought a website would have to have accommodations,” Anthony said. “My builder knew about ADA compliance for my physical location. My web developer did not.”

Working on a website can be difficult. Adding new media and updating pages is chore, even though you know your company website needs to evolve and become more accessible to the many users you are trying to reach. Maybe when you first built it, accessibility wasn’t even really discussed. But now you’ve taken a step back, looked at your customer base with a desire to include everyone and you’ve realized just how important it is to make your site accessible. However, the thought of building a robust site that can do all the things you want it to do is overwhelming.

What is Web Accessibility

A practice of designing and coding the website in order to provide complete compatibility in accessing it by people with disabilities. In addition, it is a way to improve search engine optimization only an ADA Compliant Web Designer will help you to make your website Compliant. Is your website compatible? By going through the checklist below, you can get the answer.

Assessing Current Web Pages and Content

  • The website must include a feature like a navigation link at the top of the page. These links have a bypass mechanism such as a “skip navigation” link. This feature directs screen readers to bypass the row of navigation links and start at the web page content. It is beneficial for people who use screen readers to avoid to listen to all the links each time they jump to a new page.
  • All the links should be understandable when taken out of the context. For example, images without alternative text and links without worded as “click here”.
  • All the graphics, maps, images, and other non-text content must provide text alternatives through the alt attribute, a hidden/visible long description.
  • All the documents posted on the website should available in HTML or another accessible text-based format. It is also applicable to other formats like Portable Document Format (PDF).
  • The online forms on the website should be structured so assistive technology can identify, describe and operate the controls and inputs. By doing this, people with disabilities can review and submit the forms.
  • If the website has online forms, the drop-down list should describe the information instead of displaying a response option. For instance, “Your Age” instead of “18-25”.
  • If the website has data charts and tables, they should be structured so that all data cells are associated with column and row identifiers.
  • All the video files on the website must have audio descriptions (if necessary). This is for the convenience of blind people or for having a visual impairment disability.
  • All the video files on the website must have synchronized captions. People with hearing problems or deaf can access these files conveniently.
  • All the audio files on the website should have synchronized captions to provide access to people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
  • All web pages should be designed so that they can be viewed using visitors’ web browser and operating system settings for color and font.

About Website Accessibility Policy and Procedures

  • One must have a written policy on website accessibility.
  • The website accessibility policy must be posted on the website at a location where it can be easily found.
  • The procedure should be developed to ensure that content is not added to the website until it has been made accessible.
  • It should be confirmed that the website manager has checked the code and structure of all new web pages before they are posted.
  • While adding the PDFs to the website, these should be accessible. Also, the text-based versions of the documents should be accessible at the same time as PDF versions.
  • Make sure that the in-house and contractor staff has received the information about the website accessibility policy and procedure to confirm the website accessibility.
  • It should be confirmed that in-house and contractor staff has received appropriate training on how to ensure the accessibility of the website.
  • The website should have a specific written plan if it contains inaccessible content. Also, it should include timeframes in place to make all of the existing web content accessible.
  • A complete plan to improve website accessibility should be posted along with invited suggestions for improvement.
  • The homepage should include easily locatable information that includes contact details like telephone number and email address. This is useful for reporting website accessibility problems and requesting accessibility services with information.
  • A website should have procedures in place to assure a quick response to the visitors with disabilities who have difficulty in accessing information or services available on the website.
  • Feedback from people who use a variety of assistive technologies is helpful in ensuring website accessibility. So make sure to ask disability groups representing people to provide feedback on the accessibility of your website.
  • Testing the website using a product available on the internet is helpful, These tools are of free cost and check the accessibility of a website. They may not identify all accessibility issues and flag issues that are not accessibility problems. However, these are, nonetheless, a helpful way to improve website accessibility.

Checklist of Action Items for Improving the Accessibility of a Website

In addition, while considering the above suggestions, the following checklist initially prepared by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for Federal Agencies provides further guidelines on ways to make websites more accessible for persons with disabilities.

This practical advice, as well as another checklist, are available at:

Satisfying all of these items does not necessarily mean that a website complies with ADA, but it will improve the website’s accessibility and decrease the risk of litigation. Again, an Expert or Web Accessibility Consulting & Services provider should be engaged to conduct a comprehensive review of your website.
Nothing brings you closer to reality than actually facing it. This is the premise of my latest attempt to spread awareness about Web Accessibility.
For better understand, here is a link in which a practical example is shown to make the websites’ user experience better by following the guidelines. Also, it tells the issues affecting various users on the internet with solutions.
You can make your website ADA compliant in an easy way by consulting the professionals, who can do this job effortlessly. Also, you can get a quick website audit from To Be ADA Compliant that offers complete web accessibility consulting & services in California, USA.

Resource: https://dev.to/chinchang/an-interactive-and-practical-introduction-to-web-accessibility-22o1