Web sites change into new focus of disability rights in age of COVID-19

As a blind man, Guillermo Robles successfully sued Domino’s Pizza for failing to create a website as accessible to him as the brick and mortar restaurants.

Now that COVID-19 brings more businesses, communications, and emergency services online, accessibility experts say the sooner websites meet Disability Guidelines, the better it is – such as: B. providing audio transcripts, writing alternative photo texts and fixing broken links.

Days after the 30th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, a civil rights law that protects people with disabilities from discrimination, the Hoge Fenton law firm in San Jose hosted a webinar on the subject with litigator Dan Ballesteros and Julie Griffiths, director of the Central Valley by California Citizens Against Legal Abuse. The event, hosted by the Silicon Valley Organization, was moderated by former MP and Hoge Fenton attorney Catharine Baker.

The most important takeaway about Internet access, called the “wild west”: Hire a counselor and lawyer to avoid litigation.

The hour-long discussion revolved around so-called serial litigators, who often file “frivolous” claims against vulnerable small companies, as they are often more satisfied with fewer resources than larger companies.

“I would say websites are going to be the real pass-bys, you can really do that from your couch,” Griffiths said, pointing to the ease of browsing online compared to physical visiting addresses. “Websites are so much easier to get to and such low-hanging fruit.”

She also accused other state laws of allowing thousands of claims for damages to be made, saying that plaintiffs who have filed numerous compliance complaints are taking advantage of the system. Some say this is why Cafe Crema in downtown San Jose closed its original location at The Alameda in January after being sued for lack of a wheelchair-accessible ramp.

Compliance through fear

However, Autumn Elliott, senior counsel at Disability Rights of California, said lawsuits are often the only way to gain access without other enforcement methods. Whether it’s social security kiosks, online tax return systems, or even Governor Gavin Newsom’s order to declare a state of emergency, Elliot said the number of non-compliant websites was daunting.

“We would love if the ADA and other civil rights laws were followed because people understand why we need these kinds of laws and are committed to justice and inclusion,” Elliott told San Jose Spotlight. “Unfortunately, in many cases, people need to fear a lawsuit or other action before they adhere to it. Power does not concede anything without asking. “

She argued that new websites should be created in 2020 that were accessible on the go and that retrofitting should be standard. Complaints about the cost of litigation clarify the amount of access people with disabilities take for granted, she said.

“Regardless of how many lawsuits are filed, they are a drop in the bucket compared to the number of inaccessible websites,” Elliott said. “Every time someone has to ask someone without a disability to help them complete a task, or simply to give up on it, they lose the privacy and independence we all value. Something like an accessible website really resonates throughout a person’s life. “

According to attorneys at Seyfarth Shaw, website and mobile app compliance accounted for a fifth of the 11,000+ ADA lawsuits filed in 2019. Accessible technology company UsableNet reported that 972 cases were filed in the first half of 2020.

Ballesteros said he sees roughly six lawsuits per quarter that clients can bring between $ 4,000 and $ 12,000 – in addition to legal fees.

“(The plaintiffs’ attorneys will) go outside with their expert and crawl through every aspect of your business and find more things to add to the complaint,” Ballesteros said. “The really frustrating problem with the standard is that it is very different from saying that the service counter can’t be taller than 38 inches.”

Lack of guidance

This is one of the reasons why website accessibility best practices remain unclear.

International standards use the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, which include adjustments for blindness, low vision, deafness, and other disabilities. Success is measured by four principles of a website: noticeable, functional, understandable and robust.

The Justice Department has not provided any helpful advice beyond the WCAB, despite promising to do so in 2010. In a recent San Jose ADA requirements bulletin, websites were not mentioned once.

The lack of specific requirements means that many companies run the risk of failing basic accessibility tests, which usually include illegible menus, colors, pop-ups, and forms.

Adam Unger, business developer at Biz.Builders, a website inspection company, said users can get a basic view of their website’s compliance for themselves. Personal devices can often test accessibility using features like Apple’s iPhone iOS Voice Over.

Unger, a website designer by profession, said the problem was like the wild west, especially given the fact that no website is perfect. He knows because a website he created was sued once.

“This is the problem you never knew you had,” Unger told San Jose Spotlight. “These guidelines have surprised businesses and organizations. If you don’t proactively address this issue, it is a $ 10,000 mistake for you and your business.”

Unger said 80% of his clients were actively facing lawsuits they didn’t see coming and blaming the lack of clear guidelines, recommendations and education on the matter.

He suggests companies pay for inspections or turn to nonprofits like the Miami Lighthouse for the Blind, which serves the visually impaired through educational, social, and extracurricular programs.

Of the 400 certified access specialists in California – often contractors or architects who deal with regulatory compliance – Unger said only 15 were interested in considering website inspections. That leaves little room for proactive efforts as free one-click tools are not always reliable or informative.

Over time, this lack of control has created a mountain of problems, according to the 2020 Annual Internet Accessibility Report. An analysis of more than 10 million websites found that 98% of US-based websites are legally inaccessible to the disabled.

Whether people with disabilities need to apply for a job, read the latest news, access religious online services, or order pizza, Unger says ADA compliance can’t just rely on serial litigation to demand accessibility.

“You can’t leave disabled people in the dark,” said Unger. “When the pandemic broke out, people needed to use services, tools and access information online more than ever. When a blind person cannot properly access a web page, this is a problem. “

Contact Katie Lauer at [email protected] or follow @_katielauer on Twitter.

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