Have you heard about this criminal? She planted a severed human finger in a bowl of chili, and then sued the fast food chain that served her the chili? (Warning: Don't go a-googling if you're eating chili right now. You're welcome.)
That case was an obvious and absurd grab for cash. Yet, the fact that it happened at all can strike fear into the most reasonable and accommodating business owner. Lawsuits can happen to anyone.
Frivolous cases aside, there are times when citizens legitimately feel that the legal system is their only option to get fair access the rest of us take for granted. Since the passage of the American Disabilities Act of 1990 we've made headway on making our public places more accessible. What about our online lives?
Does your website provide verbal descriptions of its content? Provide captioning that displays text large enough to accommodate the visually impaired? Or how about special programming to accommodate people with disabilities to properly access and use your web site?
These are very real access issues for people with disabilities.
Most small businesses probably do not have these access accommodations in place. According to The Wall Street Journal, these businesses may soon have to in order to comply with federal disability law. Last March, the Justice Department released a list of tentative compliance standards for web and mobile site accessibility, which aren’t expected officially until sometime in 2015.
In the meantime, there is some debate about whether a business is liable under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to provide web and mobile sites that accommodate people with disabilities. While the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that a web site is not a place of public accommodation, other court decisions have. More significantly, the Department of Justice maintains the Ninth Circuit Court decision has limited applicability and that “businesses should proceed with caution.”
Generally speaking, sites must accommodate people who are blind, partially sighted, or color-blind. In addition, sites must be navigable by the elderly, the mentally-impaired, the hearing-impaired and anyone lacking dexterity to easily manipulate a mouse or pointing device.
At this point, as ADA specialist attorney Richard Hunt points out, there is no definitive legal ruling and the best proactive plan of action is to ensure your site is in compliance with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 as defined by the W3C® Web Accessibility Initiative. Also, if you do business with the federal government, you must be in compliance with Section 508. If you do business internationally, you need to be compliant with local WCAG regulations. In other words, for now, you need a techie, not a lawyer, to head off any possible web site accessibility complaints.
Check Your Web Compliance
Today, chances of a frivolous lawsuit based on your website's ADA compliance are remote. However, it is forward-thinking to consider how you can improve your business's website for greater inclusion. Why not make it easier for more customers to do business with you!
If you hired a professional web-design firm, they should have ensured your site is WCAG-compliant. Make sure to ask.
If you self-published your site, or you just want to check for yourself, there are a number of free tools that can check compliance once you give them the URL of your site. Note that these tools do not fix any issues, but rather alert you that they exist. You have to take the necessary steps to correct any identified problem. Also, these sites do not check for mobile site compliance (see below).
These tools include:
- Accessibility Valet Demonstrator
- Accessibility Checker
- Functional Accessibility Evaluator 2.0 (beta)
For further reference, the W3C maintains a complete list of all web content evaluation tools.
Check Your Mobile Compliance
The following tools test mobile site access compatibility as part of an overall “mobile-friendliness” evaluation of your web site:
Check with a Professional Web Designer or Programmer
If any of these tools flag issues that seem significant, consult a professional design firm or programmer about next steps, even if you built the site yourself. As always, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.