Down to Business: Number of website-accessibility lawsuits continues to climb

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Last month, a legally blind woman in Oneida County, who works at a Utica call center serving the visually impaired, added her name to a long list of plaintiffs challenging businesses on the accessibility of their websites under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Her lawsuit, filed in federal court, claimed a Brooklyn firm described as a leader in the design and manufacture of bidets failed to make its website fully accessible to consumers like her who use various aids to navigate the internet.

When web pages are properly formatted, those tools help provide equal access to online products and services. When they aren’t, prospective customers are stymied.

The Oneida County woman alleged she was “injured” in not being able to buy a travel bidet online. But the American Foundation for the Blind puts more commonplace purchases and activities at stake.

“Web accessibility barriers have reduced or denied access to groceries, health care, transportation, employment, entertainment, restaurants and shopping,” the group wrote in a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice. “… As many information sources, services and transactions move online, people with disabilities are left behind due to the lack of digital accessibility and inclusion.”

The letter, sent in November and co-signed by dozens of members of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities, urged the Justice Department to resume work on regulations to ensure website accessibility, begun in 2010 on the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) but idled in 2017.

Earlier this year, though, the department issued “guidance” to state and local governments and to businesses open to the public reminding them of its long-held view that the ADA, a civil rights law barring discrimination against people with disabilities in everyday activities, requires that they make their websites accessible.

That fell short of the regulations the consortium sought, but the American Foundation for the Blind posted on its blog a promise to continue to push for specific rules, even as it praised links provided in the guidance to commonly used accessibility standards.

By one law firm’s estimates, 2021 was a big year for web-accessibility lawsuits against businesses. Seyfarth Shaw, founded in Chicago, counted nearly 2,900 filed in federal courts last year. That compared to just over 800 in 2017.

New York, California and Florida led the Top 10 states for 2021 federal filings, according to the firm.

Writing in the American Bar Association magazine in January, a trio of Seyfarth ADA Title III practice attorneys suggested website-accessibility law is continuing to evolve, “slowly,” with each lawsuit filed and appeal heard.

“A few things are clear, however,” they wrote. “Plaintiffs will continue to file lawsuits” and push the bounds of ADA applicability.

“Digital accessibility is here to stay, and businesses should proactively consider accessibility when acquiring, building and maintaining all digital assets,” they counseled.

Marlene Kennedy is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in her column are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach her at [email protected].

Categories: Business, Opinion

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