A Court Verdict Raises the Pressure for Website Accessibility

If you're serious about building an inclusive community in your association, you're probably already paying attention to website accessibility. And if not, you should be: Numerous court cases have looked at what the law requires of site owners, and last month a vision-impaired plaintiff won the first trial on the issue. If you're behind the curve, there are a few steps you should take now.

Why are we talking about accessibility on websites? Because of Winn-Dixie. (It’s not a new issue, admittedly, but it’s got new urgency these days.)

Last month, a federal judge in Florida issued a verdict in favor of a Winn-Dixie customer who had sued the grocery chain, claiming it violated the Americans With Disabilities Act because its websites were not accessible to blind and vision-impaired users. Although there have been pretrial court rulings and settlements in previous cases, this is believed to be the first trial verdict in a website ADA lawsuit.

As the Miami Herald reported, the plaintiff in the case, a legally blind Miami resident named Juan Gil, was able to visit many other sites, including those of competing grocery stores, using his screen-reading software. But the software wasn’t usable with Winn-Dixie’s website.

The judge held that the company’s site violated Title III of the ADA, which requires that places of “public accommodation” be accessible to people with disabilities. Courts have disagreed about whether the ADA covers digital spaces in the same way it’s meant for physical ones. But in a key passage from Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc., the judge said the chain’s physical stores and website were “heavily integrated”:

Although Winn-Dixie argues that Gil has not been denied access to Winn-Dixie’s physical store locations as a result of the inaccessibility of the website, the ADA does not merely require physical access to a place of public accommodation. Rather, the ADA requires that disabled individuals be provided “full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation … .” The services offered on Winn-Dixie’s website, such as the online pharmacy management system, the ability to access digital coupons that link automatically to a customer’s rewards card, and the ability to find store locations, are undoubtedly services, privileges, advantages, and accommodations offered by Winn-Dixie’s physical store locations.

The judge ordered Winn-Dixie to implement an accessibility policy that meets current standards, to train employees who do site development work, and to test the site regularly to ensure it remains accessible.

Gil didn’t sue for damages. “We’re only suing them to follow the laws that have been in this nation for 27 years,” his attorney, Scott Dinan, told the Herald.

The Ramifications

So what to make of this case? Well, let’s talk about what we already know: Website accessibility affects a small-but-not-insignificant portion of your users. That means having an accessible website is good for your members, the public, and even potential job applicants. And the PR case for adding accessibility features for your website is strong.

But the Gil verdict is a significant milestone in the legal wrangling over the issue and is a good reminder that website accessibility could someday be a clear legal mandate.

But even now, the legal uncertainty is a good reason to get your organization thinking about the issue—whether you need to develop your own accessibility strategy or better communicate your accessibility policies and tools to your members.

So, how do you get this ball rolling in your own organization? A few thoughts:

Read up on standards. Your website can’t be accessible if you aren’t aware of the problem, right? Fortunately, there are lots of resources out there, including from the World Wide Web Consortium, which has information and useful links about  various types of accessibility (related to visual impairments or an inability to use a mouse or keyboard, for example) and details about its Web Accessiblity Iniatiative.

Use a framework. The standards for proper hierarchy and accessible design are nothing new. This means that these problems have already been solved by others and are often baked into existing technical solutions. A good example comes from Zurb Foundation, which added accessibility features to its web-design framework a couple of years ago. Zurb has an entire section on its website discussing the work the company has done in building an accessible framework. Beyond simplifying your organization’s accessibility work, using a framework is a great way to avoid reinventing the wheel.

Start a discussion internally. Something really cool I stumbled upon recently was some work The Guardian has done on website accessibility. The newspaper’s development staff has its own accessibility working group, which has put on internal events designed to make clear the issues that come with limited accessibility. “The Guardian Accessibility Working Group believe that by discussing and championing accessibility, we can all become more mindful when designing, building, and refactoring features in our digital products,” the group’s Kate Whalen, Simon Adcock, and Shaun Dillon wrote of their recent workshop. Their approach strikes me as something that could translate to associations’ internal meetings or even conference sessions.

That said, the Winn-Dixie case, and others that are likely coming down the pipeline, make it clear that accessibility needs to be a key consideration in website design. Beyond being the right thing to do, it could save you a whole lot of headaches.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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