Historic Federal Court Ruling: Inaccessible Websites Violate Title III of the ADA

Updated: June 3, 2019


The disability rights advocacy community has a great deal to celebrate after a historic court ruling made on June 13, 2017.

Florida federal District Court Judge Robert Scola has ruled that grocery store chain Winn-Dixie was in violation of Title III of the ADA because its website was inaccessible to the plaintiff, a blind man who was not able to download coupons, order prescriptions, or find store locations using a screenreader on their website.

[Read the full verdict.]

This decision is historic because it is the most comprehensive ruling of its kind, being that in which a court has ruled broadly about website accessibility to the point where a company is required to make their website fully accessible to everyone.

In previous web accessibility cases in the corporate space (such as NAD vs. Netflix) where the judge ruled in favor of the plaintiff, defendants have been normally told to fix a singular issue that made part of their website inaccessible. However this time, Winn-Dixie is being required to “adopt and implement a Web Accessibility Policy which ensures that its website conforms with the WCAG 2.0 criteria.” WCAG 2.0 refers to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 Level AA standards.

Ultimately, the court found Winn-Dixie “violated the ADA because the inaccessibility of its website has denied [the plaintiff] the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations that Winn-Dixie offers to its sighted customers.”

How much of an impact does this ruling have on corporate websites?

This ruling opens up the possibility that any website owned by an organization considered a public accommodation can now be found in violation of the ADA by a federal court if the website is not fully accessible to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 Level AA standards (WCAG 2.0 AA).

As with all rulings that are not made by the Supreme Court, this ruling is not binding to any other courts or judges — other decisions can be made in other, similar court cases over inaccessible websites. What’s important is this ruling sets a precedent that companies with websites that are not accessible to people with accessibilities can be found in violation of the ADA.

As stated in a blog post from legal services agency, Seyfarth Shaw, “To the extent that businesses are considering whether to settle or litigate these cases, this decision makes the possibility of an adverse verdict much more real.”

What does this mean for video accessibility on public facing websites?

Public accommodations, a category under which a significant portion of corporate sector websites fall, will have to take the outcome of this case into account when considering whether or not to make improvements to the accessibility of their websites. When it comes to video accessibility on those websites, it might make the most sense to think about bringing everything up to WCAG standards as outlined in the ruling from the Winn-Dixie case.

WCAG 2.0 AA, the guidelines to which Winn-Dixie is being told to conform, require both closed captioning and audio description for online videos. Additionally, videos on public websites will need to be controllable by keyboard and compatible with screenreaders.

Which entities should be paying attention to this ruling?

This case found the defendant in violation of the ADA’s Title III which states public accommodations must be accessible to people with disabilities. Any businesses that are generally open to the public are considered public accommodations and are broken down into these 12 categories, as shown on the ADA’s website:

  1. Places of lodging (e.g. inns, hotels, motels) (except for owner-occupied establishments renting fewer than six rooms)
  2. Establishments serving food or drink (e.g. restaurants and bars)
  3. Places of exhibition or entertainment (e.g. motion picture houses, theaters, concert halls, stadiums)
  4. Places of public gathering (e.g. auditoriums, convention centers, lecture halls)
  5. Sales or rental establishments (e.g. bakeries, grocery stores, hardware stores, shopping centers)
  6. Service establishments (e.g. laundromats, dry-cleaners, banks, barber shops, beauty shops, travel services, shoe repair services, funeral parlors, gas stations, offices of accountants or lawyers, pharmacies, insurance offices, professional offices of health care providers, hospitals)
  7. Public transportation terminals, depots, or stations (not including facilities relating to air transportation)
  8. Places of public display or collection (e.g. museums, libraries, galleries)
  9. Places of recreation (e.g. parks, zoos, amusement parks)
  10. Places of education (e.g. nursery schools, elementary, secondary, undergraduate, or postgraduate private schools)
  11. Social service center establishments (e.g. day care centers, senior citizen centers, homeless shelters, food banks, adoption agencies)
  12. Places of exercise or recreation (e.g. gymnasiums, health spas, bowling alleys, golf courses)

How accessible do websites have to be?

The ruling judge told Winn-Dixie that they must make their website accessible according to the guidelines found in WCAG 2.0, specifically Level AA.

WCAG 2.0 Level AA requires the following standards for accessible websites:

  • Text Alternatives: Provide text alternatives for any non-text content so that it
    can be converted into other forms people need, such as large print, braille,
    speech, symbols, or simpler language. A text transcript is required for audio
  • Video Alternatives: Provide alternatives for video and audio. Closed captions
    and audio descriptions are required for time-synced video.
  • Adaptability: Create content that can be presented in different ways without
    losing information or structure.
  • Clarity: Make it easy for users to see and read content. Provide adequate color
    contrast and reduce visual clutter that affects legibility.
  • Keyboard Accessibility: Make all functionality available from a keyboard.
  • Time: Provide users enough time to read and use content.
  • Seizure Safety: Do not design content that might trigger a seizure for people
    with photosensitive epilepsy.
  • Navigability: Provide multiple, intuitive ways for users to navigate content.
  • Readability: Make text content easily readable and understandable, both
    visually and cognitively.
  • Predictability: Make pages appear and operate in predictable ways.
  • Input Assistance: Help users to avoid making mistakes; make corrections easy.
  • Compatibility: Maximize compatibility with across devices (desktop, tablet,
    mobile, Apple vs. PC, etc.). Make sure content is compatible with assistive
    technologies (screen readers, sip/puff switches, etc.).

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