California Court Rules Inaccessible Website Violates State Law
Having a presence on the internet has become a cornerstone for many businesses. However, when a business creates a website to interact with the public, it may be subjecting itself to government disability laws as courts are interpreting websites as places of public accommodations. Disabled plaintiffs have filed lawsuits alleging certain websites violate accessibility laws because they contain access restrictions and are not fully functional by the blind and/or hearing impaired.
While most of us see and read websites online, the most common way for the vision-impaired user to access the internet is with a traditional browser and text-to-speech software that can read accessible websites to the user. We recommend that businesses check with their website designer to confirm that their site is compliant with text-to-speech software programs and if they aren’t, update to a compliant, accessible site.
A recent California court ruling found a restaurant liable for violations of California’s disability access laws based on a visually disabled person’s inability to navigate a website using a screen reader program. In Thurston v. Midvale Corp., the plaintiff filed an action after she was unable to completely access a restaurant’s menu, make a reservation, or determine if it was possible to make a reservation through the use of a screen reader. The menu was in a PDF format that was an unreadable graphic image, the system for making reservations did not work with the screen reader program, and the graphics on the website were not labeled with descriptive tags.
In the order against the defendant, the court rejected the restaurant’s defense that the website posted an email address and phone number which could be contacted because “the provision of an email or phone number does not provide full and equal employment of Defendant’s website, but rather imposes a burden on the visually impaired to wait for a response via email or call during business hours rather than have access via Defendant’s website as other sighted customers.”
The court ordered the restaurant to bring its website into compliance by ensuring accessibility and to pay $4,000 in statutory damages, plus the plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees. Specifically, the restaurant was ordered to bring the website into compliance with WCAG 2.0 Level AA success criteria, the technical standard for accessible webpages.
The Thurston court’s decision to grant summary judgment not only demonstrates the substantial risks faced by businesses, but it may also embolden plaintiffs and their counsel in this area of law. What websites are subject to accessibility laws? Some courts have taken the position that accessibility applies to all commercial sites because the law was meant to protect disabled persons. Therefore, any business with a website offering goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations online to the public should be considering disability access to the website.
Businesses with public websites should take proactive measures before being subject to a customer complaint or demand letter. A good place to start is engaging a website accessibility vendor to audit all public web and mobile sites for accessibility. An accessibility vendor can also offer options for necessary remediations and assist with the implementation of procedures to ensure that future changes remain compliant.