When the Americans with Disabilities Act went into effect on July 26, 1990, it concerned access to physical property, but a local business was recently threatened with an accessibility lawsuit over its website.
The unsolicited company was first contacted in June by a New Yorker who said in his letter the website was “inaccessible to the blind and visually impaired” and asked the company to make changes to meet certain standards to be observed.
Two weeks later, the business owner received another correspondence from the same person who claimed to be legally blind. The correspondence contained a “Pre File Courtesy Notice” of a complaint by the Maine Human Rights Commission (MHRC) against the company that digital images on its website had no alternate text functionality, preventing it from using software to access it to use the information.
As a result, he alleged that the company had denied him “full and equal enjoyment” of its facilities in “willful willful discrimination” under the ADA and the Maine Human Rights Act. He demanded damages and fines from the company for deliberately causing emotional distress.
This was followed two weeks later by a proposal to settle the matter for $ 1,500 to compensate for his hardship and costs. The company could either accept the offer or file the complaint with MHRC. To avoid the cost of litigation, the company negotiated a settlement through its attorney.
The Boothbay Register asked MHRC Executive Director Amy Sneirson about this. She commented, “Our process is designed to address what someone believes to be unlawful discrimination. But the Maine Human Rights Commission is not intended to be used as an extortion tool, whether it was or not. ”“ We’ve had complaints about website accessibility for years, ”added Sneirson, advising any company in a similar situation to come forward to contact a lawyer.
UseableNet Inc., with more than 20 years of Internet accessibility experience, is pursuing these claims. In June it was reported that “ADA-based cases show a path to 4,000 lawsuits in 2021 …” and 77% of these will involve e-commerce websites. The study also found that one in four companies was sued for inaccessibility of apps after previously being sued for inaccessibility of websites.
The registry asked Jason Taylor, UseableNet’s chief innovation strategist, how many Maine companies were currently suing. He said these are difficult to identify as most are filed in New York and California, where plaintiffs live, because those states favor plaintiffs. According to Taylor, “any company that does business in these states can be sued in this state.”
Is there much more to clarify before going to court?
“The vast majority do this, 75 to 80% is a good estimate,” replied Taylor. He and his colleagues were familiar with the person who contacted the Boothbay area business and identified him as “productive” in a 2020 webinar.
Kim Moody, who has been the executive director of Disability Rights Maine for 35 years, told the Register, “It’s an unfortunate way to make a living. If someone has the resources to travel but cannot access the website, it is legitimate to do so. But if he just scours the internet for websites and threatens a lawsuit, people with disabilities will get a bad name. “
“By and large, people with disabilities don’t complain or complain, we’re an amazing rowdy group,” she said. Moody also said if a company has problems with website inaccessibility they can offer a sensible alternative, such as reading the information aloud to a visually impaired person over the phone.
For those who want more information:
Maine Human Rights Commission: https://www.maine.gov/mhrc/
Hospitality Maine, Greg Dugal: [email protected]
Maine Disability Rights: 626-2774
For an example of website accessibility, see: https://www.drme.org/
and click on “Accessibility and language options”
Usable network: https://usablenet.com/
The Boothbay Region’s VIP group for blind and visually impaired people meets every first Tuesday of the month at 1:30 p.m. in the community center. Contact Mollie Moore at 633-3810 or Joan Stark at 633-2498.
Moody encouraged those seeking information about accessibility to contact Disability Rights Maine by phone.
Since the Boothbay Region is a vacation resort, the Hospitality Maine registry asked if any of its restaurant or lodging members received such notifications.
“It’s not Maine specific,” said Greg Dugal, director of government affairs. “There has definitely been more recently. It’s not always that a small business can be tagged, but that it can be tagged more than once. ”He knows three or four companies that have received multiple letters. He pointed to cell phone apps as another accessibility problem.
For members of the hospitality industry, Dugal offers this advice: “If your website has a booking engine, ask the booking agent for declarations of compliance. And for any business, when you link from your website to other places, make sure where you link. “
Not a scam, the claim can be legitimate
Unlike scammers who operate under false pretenses, those who file website accessibility complaints may have found really problematic websites.
Businesses go down a frustrating way. Web site accessibility is a legal requirement, but the US Department of Justice has not yet issued a regulation detailing exactly what internet accessibility should include. And with no yardstick, courts rely on standards developed by the World Wide Web Consortium and referred to as Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.1).
Expressing frustration, Dugal said it was “unfair” not to give the company time to fix the problem or to provide a Justice Department rule that sets government standards for online accessibility.
His advice to companies? Hire credible web designers who are up to date with WCAG2.1 and work with people who really understand it. “It’s not just about how your website works, but also how it is understandable for a disabled person.”