Web accessibility-related lawsuits are on the rise, and most corporate websites are not compliant. Getting started on your accessibility journey can be difficult, especially when trying to determine which laws apply to you. Below are four steps you can take to better understand accessibility regulations. Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. This is not legal advice. This are simply lessons learned from my lived experience.
Research Title III of the American’s with Disabilities Act
The first step in understanding web accessibility regulations is to look at Title III of the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), which has been interpreted by the courts to apply to websites. In a nutshell, it requires that organizations make a good faith effort to deliver their websites and content in a way that everyone, including persons with disabilities, can enjoy “full and equal” use.
But simply understanding the ADA is not enough because it does not provide explicit guidance on how to ensure that your site is compliant. For that missing piece, you’ll have to look to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). In the absence of an explicit web accessibility law, the U.S. courts and the Department of Justice (DOJ) have continually referenced WCAG as the standard to gauge whether websites are accessible.
Study the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)
The second step in understanding web accessibility regulations is to look at the WCAG. The WCAG was originally developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to provide basic standards that all websites, apps and electronic content should adhere to. You can find the WCAG here.
Before diving head-first into the WGAC, I do want to offer you a warning: it can be overwhelming. For one, navigating it can be exhausting. It includes 38 standards across 4 categories, multiple versions, multiple levels of compliance, and multiple success criteria. Secondly, some of the standards are difficult to understand, circuitous and can conflict with each other.
To help, here is a quick overview of what you need to know:
- There are multiple different versions of the WCAG. Version 1.0 was published in 1999 and Version 2.0 was published in 2008. As technologies have become more complex, version 2.1 was published in 2018.
- The WCAG includes three levels of compliance:
- A (lowest level) – Minimum level of compliance
- AA : (mid range): Acceptable level of compliance for most companies
- AAA (highest level): Highest (and most complex) level of compliance
- Each organization needs to decide for themselves which version and level of compliance is appropriate, however, WGAC 2.1 Level AA has been used as the basis of several lawsuits and is generally used targeted by accessibility-minded organizations.
If you are getting started in this space, I would recommend using a simplified checklist or guide published by 3rd parties may help you better understand the WCAG. It is a great start. But do not rely exclusively on this. All guides are an interpretation of the WCAG. There is no replacement for learning the real thing.
Check out old and new accessibility lawsuits
A third step in understanding web accessibility regulations is to study accessibility lawsuits. This will provide insight into what web accessibility challenges exist and how the courts are interpreting the law.
High-profile lawsuits include:
- NAD v Netflix (2012) – Netflix
- Gil v Winn-Dixie (2017) – Winn-Dixie
- Markett vs. Five Guys Enterprises (2017) – Five Guys
- Mendizabal v. Nike Inc. (2017) – Nike
- Robles v Domino’s Pizza LLC (ongoing) – Dominos
If you are interested in learning more about accessibility lawsuits, check out these resources:
Stay abreast of emerging regulations
A fourth step in understanding accessibility regulations is to stay in-the-know about new regulatory developments and how they apply to your organization. At the moment, the two areas that I am watching are: (1) the Online Accessibility Act and (2) the Unruh Act.
Online Accessibility Act. The Online Accessibility Act is a law that was recently proposed to Congress in October 2020. No further action has been taken beyond the introduction of the law, but this is something to keep an eye on.
Unruh Act. The Unruh Act is a parallel California state civil rights act which allows persons bringing forth a lawsuit to capture additional damages beyond those provided in the ADA. Companies should pay attention to this for two reasons. First, if your website is visible in California (which is pretty much every website on the web, right?) then a California resident could potentially bring forth a suit which names the Unruh Act. Second, California has been setting standards that other states tend to follow. The California Privacy Right Act, for example, is a template that other states are considering adopting. The same could happen with the Unruh Act.