In obedience to the dictates of our digital lifestyles, every mom and pop business is jumping onto the digital bandwagon to set up a web presence. They’ve been led to believe that their small business website will bring in more customers and increase their profits – but they don’t know that it could also open the gates for a very costly lawsuit. The last few years have seen a notable rise in website accessibility lawsuits, particularly against small businesses.
In these lawsuits, businesses are sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) for having a website that’s not accessible for people with disabilities, and does answer the requirements made by the Section 508 legislation of the Workforce Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
The number of web accessibility lawsuits soared from 814 in 2017 to 2,258 in 2018 - an increase of over 177%, and one that’s expected to continue.
Just one blind activist sued 175 stores in 2 years. At first, she targeted big-name stores like Sephora, but then she filed a complaint against smaller businesses, like local shoe stores, bakeries, or caterers who have just a small store in a local mall - and a website that is not accessible to blind people using screen readers. Cases like these have been noted to be a part of a larger trend in regards to website accessibility lawsuits in the Ecommerce industry.
These web accessibility lawsuits are a stunning blow out of nowhere for SMBs. When most businesses think about ADA, they think about handicapped parking spots and physical access to their store. Most of them haven’t even heard about web accessibility. They buy a cheap eCommerce website, usually using a DIY website builder that doesn’t warn them at all about ADA compliance. At other times, SMBs hire unprofessional web design agencies that aren’t even familiar with web accessibility legislation, resulting in a non-compliant website that’s viable to ADA lawsuits.
The first time SMBs usually hear about web accessibility guidelines is when a demand letter appears in their mail.
Why are SMBs facing ADA lawsuits?
15-25% of the world’s population, and over 18% of Americans, have some sort of disability which makes it difficult for them to use the internet. They might be visually impaired, legally blind, or have any number of issues that cause them to struggle to click a mouse on a tiny button. They need accommodations like screen readers, drop-down menus, and an easy way to enlarge font without losing the content so that they can order a pizza, buy shoes, or check movie times online.
Now that we live so much of our lives online, it’s vital to make it accessible for everyone. Recent court rulings like the landmark ruling against Domino’s pizza have extended ADA rules to include websites, legally enforcing web accessibility. However, most especially small businesses don’t know anything about it. .
With so much of the web still non-accessible, some disabled rights activists are targeting all businesses with non-accessible sites, including SMBs, in order to raise awareness and push sensitivity and compliance. While the plaintiffs can’t make any money out of the lawsuits, in accordance with ADA regulations, attorneys are doing well. They encourage SMBs to settle out of court, because there’s no way to win an appeal. SMBs will only lose more money if they try to contest the lawsuit.
However, other people with disabilities say that lawsuits are the wrong way to go. They advocate reaching out to educate SMBs, before slapping on a lawsuit. SMBs say if activists were to do this, they’d be happy to make the necessary changes to their site.
How can small businesses avoid ADA lawsuits
One of the many difficulties for small businesses trying to avoid an ADA lawsuit is that there’s still no fixed standard for web accessibility. The best practice is to follow WCAG guidelines - but these are long and complex. It’s hard to be sure that you’ve covered everything without the help of an expert, especially since you must stay current with the newest version of the WCAG (which currently stands on WCAG 2.1).
In order to fix your business website, you’ll need to carry out a detailed scan to identify all current accessibility issues; make alterations to the code for accessibility; and change your font decisions, web design choices, layouts, and more in order to accommodate the dictates of accessible coding. It’s very difficult to achieve this by yourself unless you have considerable web programming expertise.
SMBs could pay a service provider to do it, but at a cost of thousands of dollars. What’s more, you’d need to redo the entire process at least every 6 months, because site and plugin updates and new content in that time frame can make your website non-compliant. If you have a $65/month DIY eCommerce site, you’ll struggle to pay an extra $1600 or more to audit for issues, plus more to make the changes, and then pay that out every 6 months or so.
The alternative is to use a tool like accessiBe, which uses AI to do the heavy lifting. Because it’s powered by AI, the price makes web accessibility itself accessible to SMBs. AI-powered solutions are more cost-effective than a manual solution, and more comprehensive than most plugins that cover only up to 15% of website accessibility regulations.
SMBs need to protect themselves from web accessibility lawsuits
SMBs have no choice but to bring their business website to be ADA compliant, even if that costs more than the website itself or their total web sales each month. The alternative to web accessibility is paying expensive attorney fees and settlement costs for a web accessibility lawsuit. However, the best option is to choose an AI-powered option that enables them to achieve ADA compliance at an affordable price, before ADA compliance is thrust upon them.