Is your Website Discriminatory?

As the world becoming increasingly mobile, businesses are expected to adapt and accommodate customers of all backgrounds and abilities. Most employers are familiar with Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits employers from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities in all aspects of employment. “Employers” by the ADA definition applies to all employers, public or private, that employ 15 or more individuals.

Though many, if not most, employers are familiar with Title I, they might not be as familiar with Title III. Title III prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in activities of places that are public accommodations, or businesses that are generally open to the public. While there is often little confusion when this philosophy is applied to a physical business, attorneys and advocates for the disabled have successfully argued that websites fall under the heading of “public accommodations.” In other words, if you own a business and maintain an online presence, you might be vulnerable to legal action if your website doesn’t accommodate those with disabilities.

The US Department of Justice announced in 2014 the intent to revise the regulation implementing Title III. Specifically, the regulation is designed to address the obligations held by public accommodations and businesses and make sure any such websites are accessible and usable by individuals who have disabilities as defined by the ADA.

When is a website considered a public accommodation? The Department of Justice referenced these types of organizations or businesses specifically:

Businesses that sell goods online
Schools at all levels that offer programs, instruction and degree programs online
Social networks and online meeting places
Businesses that provide entertainment (games and music) and information (news and videos) online

While the Department of Justice has not yet released the official regulations, all business owners are advised to make sure that the company or organization website won’t be penalized.

While this may be the first time you have heard of website accessibility defined as a discriminatory concern, large businesses and organizations have faced legal action. In 2010, H&R Block agreed to pay $30,000 toward an accessibility complaint. MIT and Harvard have likewise faced claims over this issue. With civil penalties as high as $75,000 for a first offense and $150,000 for a new offense, businesses could be out a lot of money if found in violation.

So how do you ensure your website properly accommodates individuals with disabilities? A risk management audit is likely the best bet, but there are some common problem areas, such as:

Images without text equivalents
Documents not posted in an accessible format
Font and color choice
Video without transcripts or texts transcripts translatable by accessibility programs

The best course of action is to review your website. Have it tested by an online accessibility tester (http://www.w3.org/WAI/ER/tools/), or hire an expert to evaluate your website and make changes. You could also sit back and wait for the lawsuit, but that’s not a course of action BPJ can readily recommend.

In the meantime, if you have any questions regarding this issue, or protecting your organization from discrimination claims, please contact the professionals at BPJ. We’re happy to be of assistance.