Recently, one of the most talked about topics in dentistry has been website accessibility and what it means to be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
For those unaware of the issue, it all started when news that several dentists in Texas had received letters from an attorney alleging their websites failed to meet ADA compliance started to emerge.
These dental practices received notifications asking for money in order to avoid being taken to court. While it remains unclear whether any of the dental practices targeted by this law firm elected to pay or whether court proceedings are currently underway, the fact that a private dental practice could be sued for over this issue is enough to cause any private practice owner to take notice.
To avoid being threatened with a lawsuit, your business’ website may need to be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. While this topic is still not completely settled, and much of what we do know makes these types of lawsuits seem like little more than a legal shakedown, it may make sense to plan ahead so that your business isn’t negatively affected.
Read on to learn what the ADA Guidelines entail, what it takes to make your website compliant, and how to protect your business from the associated potential penalties and legal costs that you could incur.
How Do the ADA Guidelines Affect My Business’ Website?
If your business has a physical location that’s open to the public, you probably already have some experience working with ADA guidelines.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), requires that businesses ensure all of their customers have equal access to the same services, regardless of any physical limitations. ADA guidelines are the reason why public buildings have ramps, wider door frames, and accessible bathrooms, all designed to meet the needs of those with physical limitations.
Last fall, the Department of Justice (DOJ) elected to postpone the implementation of new regulations regarding ADA website compliance until reconvening in 2018 when the department will finalize the standards it expects businesses to meet.
Previously, the requirement for equal access only applied to storefronts and physical locations. But now, the Department of Justice is working to ensure that ADA accessibility requirements also apply to digital properties like mobile apps and websites.
This is great news for the millions of Americans who have hearing, visual, or mobility issues that currently limit their ability to access some information online. However, if you’re a small business owner that neglects to make the necessary changes to their digital assets, you could face fines, lawsuits, and legal penalties for your failure to comply.
ADA Website Compliance Already Affecting Some Large Organizations
The University of Berkeley was recently forced to remove over 20,000 educational videos from its website after the college was sued due to the content not containing closed captioning.
A lawsuit from the National Federation of the Blind against the box store retailer Target resulted in a settlement after the organization claimed that an inaccessibility of the company’s website impeded the full enjoyment of goods and services for blind Americans.
Hugo Boss, H&M, Urban Outfitters, Swatch, and Tory Burch have also recently been sued for having websites that are inaccessible to the blind community.
These are just a couple of examples of lawsuits against retailers failing to comply with Title III of the ADA.
A lot of ambiguity still exists regarding which businesses need to meet ADA requirements, and understanding what steps you need to take to protect your small business website can be confusing. To help make sense of what steps the DOJ expects businesses to take to meet these requirements, here’s what you need to know about becoming an ADA website compliant:
What Types of Businesses Need to Have ADA Compliant Websites?
Any business classified as a “place of public accommodation” must meet ADA requirements to provide equal access to services under the nondiscrimination section of Title III. Careful examination of the guidelines shows that this requirement falls on a variety of businesses, including retail stores, entertainment venues, hotels, legal firms, and basically every type of business not considered a private club, including online only businesses.
The DOJ clarified in its ruling that websites need to be designed so they are accessible to individuals who have hearing, vision, and physical disabilities. A growing body of case law shows the DOJ actively working to settle cases with businesses and municipalities across the country to enforce compliance.
Furthermore, ADA compliance isn’t simply limited to websites either. A ruling recently against Peapod, the nation’s largest internet grocery delivery service, established the need for mobile apps to meet a similar standard for accessibility.
What Makes a Website Compliant with ADA Regulations?
Individuals with disabilities that affect their hearing, sight, or mobility may have trouble accessing certain aspects of a website or other digital property unless properly accommodated. Just as a brick and mortar storefront may need to make certain concessions to enable disabled customers to have convenient access to the premises, businesses may need to make certain adjustments to their websites so that disabled individuals can fully utilize all of the available services and features.
Ensuring that everyone has equal access to digital properties like websites simply makes sense. Access to the Internet has become a basic human right to many, and a vital part of how we do everything from shop, learn, socialize, and bank.
The DOJ has yet to determine what the final set of regulations a website must meet in order to achieve ADA compliance (that will come later in 2018), which makes it all but impossible for businesses to become compliant.
There currently exists no legal standard as to what website accessibility standard the DOJ expects businesses to meet. However, the signs of what the DOJ expects seem to point towards WCAG 2.0 AA for websites. WCAG 2.0 AA is the website accessibility standard currently used in DOJ settlement agreements.
What are Some Features of an ADA Compliant Website?
Making a website ADA compliant is all about making sure that everybody has equal access to every aspect of your app or website. That may necessitate you provide alternatives for some of the basic functions and content on your website in order to meet compliance standards. Here are a few of the most common accommodations that many websites will need to make:
Your website needs to feature text that’s easily resizable and features a high contrast mode option that makes it easier for visually impaired individuals to read the text. Photos need to feature text descriptors, and the videos used on your website need to include audio transcripts and descriptions for those with a hearing impairment.
Your site also needs to feature a text only option, with all functionality accessible using a keyboard interface for individuals with mobility issues. Once you take the steps necessary to meet these and other ADA guideline changes, your site needs to be tested by a website development firm familiar with ADA compliance issues to ensure that visitors who utilize assistive technology like screen readers have no problems accessing your website’s content.
How will an ADA Compliant Website Impact Your Business?
For the majority of small businesses, the need for an ADA compliant website will necessitate making some changes to their online marketing strategies. For example, if you operate a dental practice that offers patient forms such insurance and health history online, you need to make sure all downloadable forms meet the ADA standards for accessibility. Any online forms you offer would also need to meet these requirements.
If you operate a small boutique, you probably have a website, shopping cart, virtual rewards program, and inventory pages all accessible online. Every aspect of your digital assets will need to be examined and adjusted to ensure you meet compliance standards. You’ll need to take a broad view of your digital properties as a whole to ensure that you don’t overlook any aspect that might leave a potential subset of your customer base underserved.
Why are ADA Related Lawsuits on the Rise?
Since the 2015, over 240 federal lawsuits have been filed throughout the U.S. against companies of all sizes, including banks, major retailers, and small business owners. The reason these types of lawsuits have been on the rise is simple – they offer what amounts to free money for those willing to exploit the current system.
The ADA allows private parties to file claim in court, and if they win, the defendant must pay their attorney’s fees, all associated fines, and injunctive relief to any aggrieved parties. And here is why the recent targeting of Texas dentists truly matters.
For litigating parties looking to exploit the current ambiguity of what reasonable expectations of compliance a business should be held to under the ADA, there’s little downside to threatening to take a small business like a dental practice to court.
Until the DOJ announces a clear, black and white set of rules and regulations business’ must meet, plaintiffs have the ability to threaten a law suit nearly risk free knowing full well that a small practice can’t afford to put up a real legal fight.
Due to the current confusion surrounding this issue, any small business that chooses to fight back could very well find itself in the end in violation of ADA regulations should their case end up in court. Not only would the small business then have to pay a fine, they would also have to pay the legal fees of those who sued them.
The courts are reluctant to throw these types of nuisance lawsuits out of court because they are based around very real and important guidelines that help ensure millions of Americans enjoy equal access.
Under these conditions, it’s no wonder that a company might find it easier to settle these types of lawsuits quickly so as to avoid any negative publicity and the potential for further future legal fees and fines. Unfortunately, a willingness to settle means that the courts have yet to rule on the merits of these type of cases or to articulate what limitations, exceptions, or standards should apply in the absence of official rules and guidelines.
Local Fresh Can Help Protect Your Business
The best way to protect your business from ADA accessibility lawsuits may be to meet the current standards. This means you need to enact a plan to ensure that all core functions of your website will conform to internationally accepted guideline (WCAG 2.0 AA). Offering to settle a lawsuit will not protect you in the future from additional litigation, and waiting for the DOJ to set its standards in 2018 may cost you more money in the long-term.
The best way you can ensure compliance is to hire a qualified web design firm to perform an audit on all of your digital properties. Local Fresh can provide you with a better understanding of what your business needs to safeguard itself against potential litigation by offering a free website audit.
Our team of web designers and programers have built dozens of dental practice websites and the possess knowledge and expertise needed to help you identify what areas you need to strengthen to meet WCAG 2.0 AA standards.