The number of U.S. lawsuits alleging that websites, apps and digital videos were inaccessible to people with disabilities rose 64% in the first half of 2021 from a year earlier, a new report says.
Plaintiffs filed 1,661 lawsuits claiming digital violations of either the federal Americans with Disabilities Act or California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act between Jan. 1 and June 30, up from 1,012 in the comparable period of 2020, according to the report by UsableNet Inc., a technology firm that offers accessibility-compliance technology and services.
Such lawsuits have risen steadily, to about 3,500 in 2020 from roughly 2,900 in 2019 and about 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 sued most often, accounting for 74% of federal cases between Jan. 1 and June 21, the report said. Rounding out the top five categories were digital media and agencies, finance, food service and healthcare, each accounting for less than 5% of the total.
Companies with revenue below $50 million were the targets of two-thirds of lawsuits between Jan. 1 and June 21, a shift from the year-earlier period, when the share was less than half, UsableNet said.
Consumers’ increased use of e-commerce and other digital experiences during the Covid-19 pandemic heightened awareness of accessibility issues, but advocates say many companies still don’t give priority to accessibility when they design new products and features.
A new decision in a case involving Domino’s Pizza LLC might encourage 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 using his screen-reader software. In June, federal Judge Jesus Bernal ruled that Domino’s site violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Unruh Civil Rights Act, ordering the company to make its website accessible and pay $4,000 to Mr. Robles. A Domino’s spokesman declined to comment.
Companies such as
have tackled the problem with accessibility checkers that automate the process of finding potential problems for people with disabilities. And the startup Evinced Inc., which looks for accessibility problems on websites using artificial intelligence, raised $19.5 million in Series A funding in February from investors including
Accessibility advocates say these services can miss errors, however, or inadvertently cause additional problems, by incorrectly describing 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, chief innovation strategist at UsableNet.
Companies can end up being sued over accessibility despite their efforts, said Peter Shapiro, partner and Northeast regional vice-chair of labor and employment practice at law firm Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP.
“The current situation is very perilous for businesses—they don’t know whether they comply, no matter how much they expand and resources they devote to trying to be compliant,” Mr. Shapiro said.
And litigation isn’t always the best approach, some advocates say.
The lawsuits can sometimes force organizations to recognize the importance of digital accessibility, said Lainey Feingold, a disability-rights lawyer and author. But they often result in confidential settlements, without transparency into the defendants’ plans to become more accessible, she said.
“Digital inclusion is about including disabled people in the digital world, and it is so vital for participation, diversity, civil rights,” Ms. Feingold said. “Funneling it into a question of is-it-legal compliance really gets away from that.”
“It is much easier to have accessible processes from the outset and not be doing all these high-cost remediations,” he said.
Write to Ann-Marie Alcántara at [email protected]
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