How an inaccessible site could get you sued

Web developer Melody Ma explores some landmark cases of what happens when organisations don't consider accessibility.

'A web for everyone' is the tagline for web accessibility. As more and more of our transactions go online, web accessibility is becoming more important than ever. But, what if your site was designed to be 'a web for the privileged'?

Before 2006, Target was one of those websites. Its negligence of web accessibility practices resulted in a landmark lawsuit with the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), which fundamentally changed our legal understanding of the American Disabilities Act (ADA).

The crux of the case was whether the ADA also applied to the accessibility of online locations, even though it didn't explicitly say so at that time. Target argued that its visually impaired customers could simply access their physical locations. The courts disagreed, and ruled in favour of the NFB.

'A web for everyone' is the tagline for web accessibility

There has been a surge of accessibility lawsuits in North America in recent years. Lawsuits are generally targeted at organisations that provide essential services, such as travel and education. You might not expect that those creating the laws would come under fire themselves.

In 2006, Donna Jodhan, a legally blind consultant, found she couldn't apply for a job with the Government of Canada, because its website was inaccessible. In 2007 the case went to court, and the Government of Canada was required to make its website accessible to the blind within 15 months of the final ruling. As a by-product of this case, it created an award-winning, open source accessibility framework called the Web Experience Toolkit.

Positive change

Organisations that invest in an accessible web can see a tangible positive impact or financial gain. For example, Tesco was also called out by the RNIB for the inaccessibility of its website. It committed to a goal that anyone, regardless of their physical or cognitive abilities, would be able to check out 30 items within 15 minutes. Its investment paid off – the newly accessible site added 13 million GBP to its annual revenue.

In another example, the Center of Civic Innovation in the US embarked on a study to design a digital ballot that was accessible to people with low literacy and mild cognitive disabilities. The results of the design experiment have not yet been implemented, but can you imagine a world where everyone can not only shop online, but also vote independently online wherever they are? Now that's truly a step towards a web for everyone.

This article originally appeared in issue 271 of net magazine.

Words: Melody Ma

Melody Ma is a web developer and a software product manager. She is a member of the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative Education and Outreach Work Group.

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