Several companies have been the target of lawsuits claiming their websites are discriminatory against disabled consumers, according to Bloomberg BNA Electronic Commerce & Law Report. The lawsuits, filed against companies as large as J.C. Penney and Sprint, generally state these websites violate Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Over 40 suits have been filed so far this year – the latest is a putative class action case against Home Depot. The plaintiff, a legally blind man, alleges that Home Depot's website fails to adhere to multiple common accessibility standards and restricts access for the visually impaired. The complaint was filed Nov. 20.
Such cases are tricky, as the ADA does not effectively establish whether it applies to websites. Businesses are reluctant to undergo the costs of redesigning their sites, according to the report, without official government regulation establishing what is and is not necessary.
"When technology and society advance faster than the Department of Justice can issue regulations, businesses are trapped in a position as to how they should provide their services in an accessible manner," Joshua Stein, a member of Epstein Becker & Green PC, told Bloomberg BNA. " … The Department of Justice effectively tries to walk a fine line. On the one hand, it says websites must be accessible. But how and to what extent, the agency says, is very complicated and is still being worked through."
Lack of government regulation
The U.S. Department of Justice issued an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking in 2010 addressing concerns of Internet accessibility. It said the department was considering revising Title III of the ADA to include websites. Title III currently states that places of public accommodation must meet certain requirements so that the space is accessible to those who are disabled. There is a disagreement as to whether or not websites are considered "places of public accommodation," according to the Bloomberg report. Unfortunately, the DOJ has not made this clear and has no plans to announce Web regulations until 2018.
Because of the lack of governmental standards, it is common for state and federal courts to disagree on how companies must structure their websites (or even if such structuring is necessary) to remain compliant with Title III, Practical Ecommerce found.
Becoming accessible online
Despite no official ruling, Stein recommended businesses make their websites accessible according to standards set by the World Wide Web Consortium. W3C is an international organization that details best practices for the Web. Following W3C guidelines is not mandatory, but the organization is accepted as the leading source of Internet guidelines. In fact, W3C standards are very close to those required by Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. Section 508 requires publicly available government technology – including websites – to be accessible to disabled persons.
Practical Ecommerce pointed out that businesses can implement accessibility standards and still lose a potential lawsuit. However, not taking such measures increases the risk of losing.
"It's always better to make changes on your own accord than to have to go back as part of a settlement," Stein told Bloomberg.
W3C provided a brief summary of its Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. Anything not text should have a text alternative. For example, images should have alternative tags and descriptions, while videos and audio should have transcripts. A website should be fully accessible via keyboard to provide for users unable to navigate with a mouse, and content should be able to be viewed in different forms while maintaining clarity. Animated banners and slideshows should be used sparingly, as these may cause seizures. What's more, ecommerce businesses should pay particular attention to the way their website's forms are set up.
Forms for online payments
Online forms are the primary way users input their payment information when making a purchase online, so structuring a form correctly will better allow disabled users to submit electronic payments via debit card, banking information or other method. Properly coding a form is greatly beneficial to those who rely on speech command and screen readers.
Though there is no government legislation concerning websites and the Americans with Disabilities Act, businesses should use W3C guidelines to make sure their sites are easy and convenient to use for those who are disabled.
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