Fighting an ADA Website Compliance Lawsuit: Case Study

 Dedicated Designs

We got the email that you never want to get from a client. “We are getting sued for our website not being ADA compliant.” This client is a large regional furniture retailer that operates 18 locations across the West Coast and Texas. They are one of our largest clients, and they had just moved their web hosting over less than a month before they got sued. Sadly, this was not enough time for us to fully review their site to make recommendations about how to improve their ADA website compliance. It should have been handled when the site was built. While we did not build their site, we were now tasked with combing through their site to fix every single error that was listed on the ADA compliance scan they received from the plaintiff.

 

Facing the Staggering List of ADA Website Compliance Errors

The list of edits were staggering. 500+ errors on the site ranging from image alt tags, which should have been handled in the initial design of the site (because that is basic SEO that any designer or developer should do), to how the forms were being read by screen readers employed by disabled individuals to access the internet. 

The list was so large that we went back to the client and advised them to have us build them an entirely new site. The amount of time it was going to take to fix all of the errors would be equal to or more than the hours it would take to rebuild the site. Plus, because of how the site was built, we could not guarantee that all of the errors could be fixed which would then mean the need for a new build anyway.

 

An ADA Website Compliance Lawsuit Waiting to Happen

If you do not know about website ADA compliance you are not alone. It is one of the most important liabilities business owners do not address and is a ticking time bomb because at some point, someone with a disability that impairs their use of the internet will come across your website. After we handled the situation for them, our client said, “The scope of this problem is huge. Beware. This is serious. Being proactive is the motto. Get in front of this.” 

Most disabled users will reach out to the business if the site is not ADA friendly and kindly ask for the site to be made accessible to them. However, there are some individuals who see this as a money making scheme; they target businesses they know can afford to settle out of court for $20,000 to $100,000 and sue them for not being able to use the website. It is a valid suit, according to the law, and terrifyingly, it only takes a small amount of non-compliance to open yourself up to a large lawsuit. The good news is that it only takes a phone call or an email to the right company to protect yourself, but most business owners don’t know that this help is available.

The law states that business owners must make a reasonable attempt to make their site ADA compliant. This creates a large gray area that benefits the ADA lawsuit predators rather than the business owners. However, if done properly, it is easy to show a court that you made a reasonable effort to make your site ADA accessible.

 

Accessibility for All Online

How do disabled users use the internet? It depends on the disability, but most individuals who are visually impaired have screen readers installed on their devices that  describe websites to them. These screen readers are only as good as the sites they are reviewing. If the website is not properly structured, the screen reader will jump around reading headings and paragraphs in whatever order the designer labeled them. 

All sites should follow a specific structure where the top heading is coded as an H1 header down to the paragraphs that are coded using “p” tags. This is not just helpful for ADA compliance, but is also basic SEO that every site should follow. Moreover, images cannot be read. If there is an image on a website, a screen reader uses the image’s alt tag added by the designer or developer to read the alt tag to the user so that they know what the image depicts. 

Alt tags were invented in 1995 originally to let users know what kind of images were loading on the website, since network speeds were very slow. Today, alt tags are used for accessibility readers and also play a role in Search Engine Optimization. An alt tag tells the bot what is in the image, and then the bot sends that information to the search engine so the image and site can be ranked and indexed as a search result. If there is no alt tag then the image cannot be ranked and indexed, thus hurting the SEO of the site. 

While this should not be an issue for any professionally-built website, that is sadly not the case. We have found that a lot of designers and developers do not take the time with the little details such as alt tags and can skip them all together. Additionally, they may simply miss a handful of images which is just as bad as missing all of them because all it takes is a few missed elements and your website is now open for a lawsuit. Lastly, for some users who don’t need a screen reader but still have poor eyesight, color contrast and font size are extremely important, and again, this should be done properly from the start because any business would want their website to be easily readable.

 

Integrating ADA Compliance into a New Website Build

Rebuilding our client’s site made the most sense as it is easier to control ADA compliance while you are building the site from the ground up. As each piece of the site is built, ADA compliance can simply be built in at the same time. 

Think of a website as a building. If corners are cut when the building is first built, and it is not properly sealed off from the elements and insects, it is more difficult and more expensive to go back and reconstruct the building in the way it should have been made when it was first built. To reduce the settlement for our client as much as we could, we had to show that the website was ADA compliant. However, it did not say that it had to be the original site. 

This was a very important detail we caught because it saved our client a lot of money! We made a simpler second site that would be ADA compliant right from the start and lend itself to being able to scale up as the company grew and as the site evolved in complexity.

 

Lessons Learned the Hard Way

When we finished the new site and launched it, our client had their attorney reach out to the plaintiff and show them the site. We added an extra layer of protection by installing a third party app that allows any user to access the website in the best way possible for their disability. The app bridged the uncertainty gap in the law on what is reasonable and what is not when making a site ADA accessible. 

Our goal is to prove that our clients have done everything they can to make the site ADA accessible. Nothing shows that more than a third party ADA accessibility app installed on the site. While the new site was ADA compliant, our client still had to settle for $30,000 because their old site was not compliant and that is what started the lawsuit. However, this was much less than what it would have cost to fight the lawsuit. Our client’s attorney estimates that it would have cost $100,000 or more to fight it and there was still the chance that they might lose the case. 

 

What did our client learn in the end? 

  1. Only work with designers and developers who understand what ADA compliance is and who do not cut corners to save on time and money because it will come back to bite them in the future.
  2. Ensure that whoever is hosting and managing the site on a monthly basis is performing an ADA check at least once a quarter and reporting to the client any errors that pop up so they can be dealt with in a timely manner.

     
    While we are really happy with the results from this project it is still troubling because had the site been built properly from the beginning by the other developer, all of this time, trouble, and expense could have been avoided. 

    If you are wondering what your risks are in terms of the ADA compliance of your site, please reach out to us at ADAHelp@dedicateddesigns.com and we will work with you to help you understand your risks and how to mitigate them.

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