Is Your Website Accessible To The Blind?

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After the ruling in favor of a customer in the Gil v. Winn-Dixie case (Florida District Court), the flood gates have opened against businesses, including self-storage companies, claiming ADA violations related to website accessibility. Essentially, the claims in the Winn-Dixie case were that the grocery store chain owner violated the ADA by maintaining a website that was inaccessible to visually impaired patrons who had to use screen reader software, because such inaccessibility denied the patron the “full and equal enjoyment of goods, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations that stores offered to sighted customers”. In this particular case, the website operated as a gateway to the store’s physical locations and offered services such as online pharmacy management system, ability to access digital coupons that linked automatically to customers’ rewards cards, and the ability to find store locations. The argument was that it was difficult, if not impossible, for such blind patrons to use paper coupons, locate physical stores by other means, and physically go to a pharmacy location to fill prescriptions.

The Court ultimately held in its decision the following:

“Winn-Dixie has presented no evidence to establish that it would be unduly burdensome to make its website accessible to visually impaired individuals. To the contrary, its corporate representative unequivocally testified that modifying the website to make it accessible to the visual impaired was feasible. Remediation measures in conformity with the WCAG 2.0 Guidelines will provide Gil and other visually impaired consumers the ability to access Winn-Dixie’s website and permit full and equal enjoyment of the services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations provided through Winn-Dixie’s website. Gil has proven that he is entitled to injunctive relief.”

Almost immediately after this case was decided, cases were filed by blind plaintiffs alleging lack of accessibility against all different companies that use their websites for commerce, including, but not limited to, self-storage companies. So, what are some immediate lessons to be taken from this situation?

First, companies must pay attention to The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). These guidelines provide technical standards for website accessibility. The WCAG 2.0 standards are the basis for companies to consider when working on their websites. Businesses should adopt these standards to meet the minimum requirements for website accessibility in order to avoid potential liability. Examples of WCAG 2.0 Standards are using text alternatives (symbols or simpler language), providing simpler site content, making web pages operate in “predictable ways”, increasing web font size, providing easier navigation of pages, offering closed caption instructions, and providing integration for “assistive” technology like screen readers for blind users.

A significant element of the website must involve a notice to the user who has accessibility challenges, including a direct contact for a reference person to assist the user. Such a notice may read as follows:

If you use assistive technology (such as a braille reader, a screen reader, or TTY) and the format of any material on this website interferes with your ability to access information, please contact ___________________at ___________________ (or via e-mail at ____________________).

Users who need accessibility assistance can also contact us by phone through the Federal Information Relay Service at ____________________________.

Finally, individuals having complaints or concerns regarding the accessibility of this website should contact ____________________________at _______________________ (or via e-mail at ____________________).

As technology changes, the laws relating to the use of technology will continue to evolve as well. In this case, the purpose and intent of the Americans with Disabilities Act has moved from the physical to the virtual. In both cases, the outcome is to seek the removal of any obstacles that may interfere with the unfettered access and use of a public business. 

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