Checks and Balances

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Did you know that the retail sector experiences the highest number of website accessibility lawsuits, followed by hospitality? While the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) doesn’t specifically cover websites and there is no legal standard that defines an accessible website, there is an obligation to equal access. It is a stance that the courts are inclined to agree with; 2016 saw a slew of lawsuits against retailers for their consumer-facing websites. Here’s how to avoid your website becoming the subject of a lawsuit.

In the absence of specific legal guidelines, the US Department of Justice (the government agency that enforces the ADA, is in the process of developing regulations for website accessibility*, but is not expected to finalize these until 2018). In the meantime, there have been some significant rulings: Target settled a claim for US$6M (plus US$3.7M in legal fees) because its website was inaccessible to blind users and in violation of the ADA; while Bag’n & Baggage was fined a minimum of US$4,000 (plus legal fees) because a visually-impaired customer could not access the website using a screen reader. 

Common issues raised by the website lawsuits include: images without text descriptions, no clear labeling of ‘shopping’ instructions and pages that fail to work once the text size has been changed. For customers with visual impairments, these details have rendered the sites difficult to navigate and in some cases, unusable.

The perils of not having an accessible website are not the only consideration for retailers. The ADA requires places of public accommodation to provide access for those with disabilities to the goods and services offered. That means everything from the shop’s physical premises to its point-of-sale devices need to be accessible, and capable of being used by someone with a disability, independently of help.

For many blind or visually impaired customers, the point-of-sale devices such as chip and PIN keypads pose problems. While well-trained customer service employees can help the customer and prevent this from being an unpleasant experience for them, it is still not the solution to the customer’s right to independence.

Retailers need to consider the possibilities of the store’s layout and the type of technology on offer to reduce the risk of legal action. ATM machines are a great example: tactile keypads, headphone jacks and text-to-speech software mean that they can be used independently by those with visual impairments.

Of course, it isn’t possible to offer these specialist options to an online customer but it is possible to consider the detail of the website with their needs in mind. Testing a site’s performance using the WAVE program before it goes live is a great way to understand what customers will experience. Failure to do so could at best, leave customers disinclined to return and at worst, see them bringing a lawsuit against the business for discrimination, even if the discrimination is accidental.

Retailers need to consider the ADA for both their premises and website to avoid a potential lawsuit – and because it makes good business sense to make sure your goods and services are accessible to all of your customers. If you would like expert advice in matters of accessibility and interpreting the Rehabilitation Act (Section 508) with respect to your business, then get in touch with Amnet.

*While government regulations are being developed, compliance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 level AA guidelines created by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is the best course of action. A final rule under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, applies to the federal government’s websites and electronic content, and is ultimately likely to be the standard followed by the US Department of Justice.