Suing high-income companies over their web site (not being accessible to the disabled) is the latest craze in the legal industry. It is prevalent and increasing. Predatory attorneys are sucker punching companies by filing suits without warning. Is it real? We’ve had an Accessibility Form designed for the disabled on a high traffic site for over a year. We have yet to receive anything from an actual disabled person. The bottom line is attorneys have an official government standard and evidence that your web site does not comply. From their perspective it is an open and shut case. It is the perfect legal shakedown. They’re defending the disabled. Who can argue with that?
What Is Web Accessibility Really?
Web accessibility mandates that your web site must be fully usable by someone who is disabled. That means the site must be fully functional without a mouse. It must be fully function to someone without vision. Web readers need sufficient contrast to read text from a site out loud. There is an entire world built on accessibility browsers that the average web designer knows little about. It is in the world of disability where your site must hold up.
This presents a quagmire for business. Web sites today can easily exceed 20,000 lines of code. For years designers have been pushing web sites into increasing complicated territory. Web sites are comprised of up to 50 include files. These are outside files that are called into the web page.
If you print out the code of a web site you would be looking at a book about five inches thick. The attorney will go to a specific page, then to a specific line, then to a specific location within the line and point out where it is out of compliance. As a business owner you are put in an impossible situation. Most business owners, and many web designers, don’t even know the book exists. They don’t know what is under the hood.
Is being sued for a non-compliant web site a real threat?
Yes. Until recently threats have been far off in the distance. Now it’s real. I am involved in several cases. Unlike before, these aren’t high profile businesses. These are average businesses. Web accessibility lawsuits are low hanging fruit for the legal profession. Anyone can test a site for web accessibility. Testing does not require web expertise. When the site comes back dozens of red flag accessibility errors it’s a target. The targets are unlimited.
The scary thing is no one is thinking about this. The business owner isn’t thinking about it. WordPress isn’t thinking about it. The web designer isn’t thinking about it. The only one thinking about it is the attorney. Think of him coming to court with a hand truck carrying boxes of documentation against you. In those boxes is a printout of your web site. It is all time-stamped direct from your server. If he’s coming to court with a hand truck, you better have something on your site. Don’t get caught without evidence on your behalf.
Is my web designer responsible for Web Accessibility?
Not likely. I’m Internet Man. I’ve build over a thousand web sites. I have never had anyone request a web accessible web site. On the contrary, everyone wants the Wow factor. The business owner wants it. The web designer wants it. Designers worry about how the site looks on the desktop, how it looks on the phone, and if can it by indexed by Google. Designers do not worry Web Accessibility unless were told.
When it comes to web sites, my industry loves to pile on the code. WordPress, bootstrap, whatever, the first thing they do is call in tons of include files. An accessibility critical error can be anywhere. Just last week I found a red flag error in a wordpress plug-in intended to make creating a site easier. I had to correct the plug-in to remove the error. If you update the plug-in the fix goes away and you are back to square one. Don’t think you can open a web site like a printed brochure and fix it. That is not the case. You need special programming knowledge to even find what is wrong. This is a technically tough problem. You wouldn’t think web sites are that complicated but they are.
What should the average business do?
Start building your case. What you don’t want is to go into court with nothing. When it is your time to talk you have to come back with evidence. Even if it is not a full counter argument, something better than nothing. This is what I recommend for all businesses:
1. Take inventory of sites you have out there. Many businesses may have satellite sites. This was common practice for marketing. Tell your web designer to take it down. Web designers only do what they’re told. Make sure you instruct them to curtail old, unused sites.
2. Put a web accessibility statement on your web site. State you are aware of web accessibility and are working on it. Provide a name, email, and phone number for disabled people to contact you.
3. Appoint a web accessibility point of contact. Make sure they respond to accessibility requests. This means having a real person pick up the phone, not general voice mail.
4. Test your site. Take care of the most egregious Red Flag accessibility errors first. Most business owners do not want to spend money on this. But when it comes legal action you have to show evidence of improvement. After removing Red Flags, start working on Yellow Flags. Then start working on contrast errors.
Hopefully your designer keeps copious records. As you take these steps make sure it is documented (save the invoices). When it comes to the Internet, it’s easy for the enemy to download and print evidence. As a business owner you need evidence too. Don’t get caught. Start now. I come down on the side of the business owner. My job is to defend them. I am not anti-disabled. I believe they should be able to use the site. But I am anti-shakedown. I don’t like that.