Demands for digital accessibility for people with disabilities on the rise

The number of lawsuits in the US alleging that websites, apps and digital videos were inaccessible to people with disabilities increased 64% in the first half of 2021 from the previous year, according to a new report .

Plaintiffs filed 1,661 lawsuits alleging digital violations of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act or California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act between January 1 and June 30, up from 1,012 in the comparable 2020 period, according to the report. from UsableNet Inc., a technology firm that offers accessibility-compliance technology and services.

Such demands have risen steadily, to about 3,500 in 2020 from about 2,900 in 2019 and around 2,300 in 2018, UsableNet said. The company predicts more than 4,000 such lawsuits for all of 2021 if trends hold.

E-commerce companies are the most in demand, accounting for 74% of federal cases between January 1 and June 21, according to the report. Rounding out the top five categories were digital media and agencies, finance, foodservice and healthcare, each with less than 5% of the total.

Companies with revenues below $ 50 million were the subject of two-thirds of the lawsuits between January 1 and June 21, a change from the prior year period, when participation was less than half, UsableNet said.

Increased consumer use of e-commerce and other digital experiences during the Covid-19 pandemic raised awareness of accessibility issues, but advocates say many companies still don’t prioritize accessibility when designing new products and features.

A new decision in a case involving Domino’s Pizza LLC could spur more lawsuits, accessibility advocates say. Guillermo Robles, who is blind, sued the pizza chain in 2016 after he was unable to order from its website with his screen reader software. In June, Federal Judge Jesús Bernal ruled that the Domino’s site violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Unruh Civil Rights Act, and ordered the company to make its website accessible and pay Mr. Robles $ 4,000. A Domino’s spokesperson declined to comment.

Companies like International Business Machines Corp.

and Limited.

They have tackled the problem with accessibility checkers that automate the process of finding potential problems for people with disabilities. And startup Evinced Inc., which looks for accessibility issues in websites that use artificial intelligence, raised $ 19.5 million in Series A funding in February from investors like Microsoft. Corp.

However, accessibility advocates say these services can inadvertently overlook errors or cause additional problems – by misdescribing an image, for example.

Ambiguity is a challenge. Unlike accessibility regulations for the physical world, there is no clear framework for violations on the Internet, said Jason Taylor, UsableNet’s chief innovation strategist.

More from the experience report

Businesses may end up being sued for accessibility despite their best efforts, said Peter Shapiro, partner and Northeast Regional Vice President of Labor and Employment Practice at Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP law firm.

“The current situation is very dangerous for companies: they do not know if they are complying, no matter how much they expand and the resources they dedicate to trying to comply,” Shapiro said.

And litigation isn’t always the best approach, some advocates say.

Lawsuits can sometimes force organizations to recognize the importance of digital accessibility, said Lainey Feingold, an attorney and author of disability rights. But they often result in confidential settlements, with no transparency in the defendants’ plans to be more accessible, he said.

“Digital inclusion is about including people with disabilities in the digital world, and it is vital for participation, diversity and civil rights,” said Ms. Feingold. “Channeling it into a legal compliance issue is really one way around that.”

Businesses should focus on accessibility from the start, said Samuel Proulx, who is blind and works as an accessibility evangelist at Fable Tech Labs Inc., an accessibility testing platform.

“It’s so much easier to have accessible processes up front and not be doing all these high-cost repairs,” he said.

Write to Ann-Marie Alcántara in [email protected]

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