Will Your Website Get You Sued?

09 Nov 2017 Gavel on computer keyboard

Possibly.

So far in 2017, almost 500 companies have been sued in federal court for having websites that are inaccessible—i.e., not fully usable by people with disabilities (such as blindness). The number of such lawsuits has increased eightfold in the last two years.

Here’s what you need to know to protect your organization.

Meet the Players: Section 508, ADA, and WCAG

Section 508—which has its own website—is an update to the 1973 Rehabilitation Act requiring all federal agencies “give disabled employees and members of the public access to [electronic] information that is comparable to access available to others.”

That means websites.

Beyond Section 508, there’s the Americans With Disabilities Act (1990). The ADA has been used, successfully, to sue companies like Hobby Lobby and Five Guys Burgers for maintaining websites that violate the ADA’s prohibition against discrimination in public places, which includes websites.   

Then there’s WCAG—which stands for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. Sort of a step-sister to the Section 508 standards, WCAG is a global set of accessibility rules published by W3C, itself an enormous global volunteer body that helps keep the web truly “world wide.”

WCAG includes three levels of requirements referred to as Level A, AA, and AAA:

  1. Level A includes the most basic web accessibility features
  2. Level AA deals with the biggest and most common barriers for people with disabilities
  3. Level AAA is the highest level of web accessibility available

Section 508 Just Got Stronger

In January of 2017, the board overseeing Section 508 announced that they were strengthening their guidelines and requirements for web accessibility.

On January 18, 2018, these new Section 508 requirements are enforceable.

But the new requirements aren’t all that new: Instead of rewriting their accessibility rules, Section 508 now simply points to the (more modern, rigorous, and widely accepted) WCAG standards—specifically Level AA. With the decision, these two bodies of knowledge are now one, and they’re the law of the land.

What the New Rules Mean For You

If you have an existing federal agency website, you are covered by the “Safe Harbor Provision” of the new guidelines, which states that existing websites that are not altered after the compliance date (January 18, 2018) don’t need to be upgraded to meet the new standards. However, if a website is altered after the compliance date, those alterations have to comply with the new standards. And that includes each “piece” of your website.

For example: If you add a new website feature, interaction, content type, software integration, etc.—including a blog article— it should meet the WCAG standards or risk running afoul of Section 508, the ADA, and perhaps countless other local and state regulations.

That’s when you become susceptible to a federal lawsuit.

The Good News

First, accessibility is important. Around here, we believe in it fiercely. Which is why everything we build aims to meet stringent accessibility standards. With nearly 100 million Americans who have some sort of disability, it’s simply common sense to design and build fully accessible websites.

Second, the likelihood you’ll be sued isn’t (currently) high. The majority of the ~500 accessibility lawsuits this year have been against major retailers and restaurant chains. But as the plaintiffs prevail, and as more legal precedent is established, the lawsuits will continue to grow.

Third, making your website accessible doesn’t need to be expensive, painful, or confusing. Simply get in touch with us and we’ll be happy to talk about how you can improve your online accessibility.

More Reading on Website Accessibility: 

Stephen Tidmore

VP of Technology

With more than two decades in Web development, Stephen leads the Development team at TradeMark.

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