ECommerce Accessibility Lawsuits Are on the Rise–What’s Going On?
Updated: January 23, 2020
There’s a litigation frenzy in the online retail world. ECommerce accessibility lawsuits are popping up frequently due to access barriers on retail sites. Brands like Glossier, Nordstrom, and Warby Parker are three among many retailers that have been hit by a web accessibility lawsuit in the past couple of years.
Below we cover what’s been going on in the digital accessibility landscape and why litigation against eCommerce companies and many others have increased substantially over the past few years. Don’t worry, we’ll also talk about what you can do to get ahead of these sweeping lawsuits and become a leader in web accessibility.
What’s With All the eCommerce Accessibility Lawsuits?
There’s much uncertainty about how accessibility laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) apply to websites. Many were hopeful when, in 2010, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced its plans to propose web accessibility regulations under the ADA.
Now, nearly ten years later, the DOJ has released no official web accessibility standards, and its previous plans to do so have been put on hold indefinitely. In 2017, the project was moved to the inactive list and was officially withdrawn from any further action. The lack of an update to the ADA has proved to be a challenge. Much confusion lies in the lack of modernity in the ADA’s language–the ADA has not been amended or updated to match modern technology in its 27 years of existence.
In 2018, there were 2,285 digital accessibility lawsuits, a stark increase from the 814 lawsuits filed in 2017.
The language within the ADA mainly specifies accessibility regulations for physical spaces. However, the DOJ’s stance is that public websites must be accessible. It also confirms that without explicit guidelines, companies can be flexible in how they choose to comply with the ADA’s general nondiscrimination and effective communication requirements.
The DOJ’s ambiguous statement may do for now, but the lack of legal standards leaves room for varying interpretations and isn’t very effective in keeping lawsuits under control. As a result, web accessibility suits are increasing year after year, eCommerce accessibility lawsuits included. In 2018, there were 2,285 digital accessibility lawsuits, a stark increase from the 814 lawsuits filed in 2017.
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When Legal Decisions Are Up for Interpretation…
The downside of unclear legal guidelines is that it allows judges to interpret the law situationally and make more subjective rulings, and the inconsistency in case-to-case rulings can be difficult to follow.
Some judges have dismissed web accessibility cases, but many others have ruled in favor of the plaintiff, expressing that the ADA does, in fact, apply to websites. In a case filed against Winn Dixie, the judge ruled that the company’s website violated Title III of the ADA for failing to provide an accessible website for the plaintiff. Winn Dixie was ordered to update its site to follow WCAG 2.0 AA guidelines.
This Winn Dixie case shows that the lack of legal standards is not enough to protect all online retailers from the ramifications of an accessibility lawsuit, which often consists of paying monetary damages and a judge’s order to recalibrate the accessibility of the site.
Why Does Accessibility Matter for eCommerce Brands?
Many people shop online–including the millions of people worldwide with disabilities–which is why web accessibility is more important than ever. Without accessible web design, there’s a good chance that many people won’t have access to your site. There’s also a risk that an eCommerce accessibility lawsuit may occur when an online retailer neglects to follow web accessibility standards, such as WCAG 2.0 or 2.1
Note: WCAG is not officially required under the ADA. However, WCAG 2.0 AA standards are widely accepted as the international standard for web accessibility.
It’s critical that eCommerce brands prioritize web accessibility and work towards providing an accessible site for those who need it.
The plaintiff in the class action lawsuit against Glossier says that she was denied access to “goods and services” and encountered “multiple access barriers” while navigating the site. For many people with disabilities, especially blindness or low vision, this is a common experience. There are limited options to shop at physical locations from online retailers if any at all. This makes it critical that eCommerce brands prioritize web accessibility and work towards providing an accessible site for those who need it.
How to Be an Accessibility Leader
Having legal web accessibility guidelines in place would help relieve much of the uncertainty about how to be compliant. However, your company doesn’t have to wait for the DOJ to make regulations official. Many things can be done now that will help to set you up for accessibility success and will light the way for other eCommerce companies to follow.
You can start by determining the places on your site where accessibility is absolutely crucial. For this, think of product pages, navigation, and the checkout process. Be sure to keep privacy in mind–people with disabilities value their privacy, too. After you ensure these areas are accessible, then you can move to the less critical spaces, like the “About” page or anything secondary to the shopping experience.
If nothing else, remember that accessibility should not be an afterthought.
Work with a professional consultant who will work with you to make your site as accessible as possible. This will help relieve some of the stress that comes with making a website accessible and will ensure that things are done right the first time around.
Write an accessibility policy and make it available on your site. Include your accessibility intentions and provide contact information for people who have challenges accessing your site.
If nothing else, remember that accessibility should not be an afterthought. On the contrary, you should consider changing the company’s processes so that accessibility is considered every step of the way moving forward.
This blog post is written for educational and general information purposes only and does not constitute specific legal advice. This blog should not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed professional attorney in your state.
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