Lawyers see boom in cash-seeking web-ADA suits

I’ve predicted that with wider acceptance of the legal theory that the ADA requires websites to reflect the needs of blind, deaf, paralyzed, and other disabled users in their design, there will eventually emerge filing mills generating form complaints alleging lack of online accessibility, just as we see with ADA complaints in some states against brick-and-mortar stores on Main Street. Now, after years of effort from disabled advocacy groups and the Obama administration to overcome unfavorable court precedent, we may be several steps closer to that day [Amanda Robert, Legal NewsLine]:

Defense attorneys say there has been an “explosion of activity” from payment-seeking plaintiffs lawyers and their blind clients who are alleging violations of federal disabilities law in lawsuits over companies’ websites – particularly in three jurisdictions [California, New York, and Pennsylvania].

One Pittsburgh attorney representing two blind plaintiffs has brought cases against Hard Rock Café International, Toys “R” Us, and Pep Boys over their online operations, as well as a case now consolidated against 16 different defendants including Ace Hardware, Brooks Brothers, the National Basketball Association and Red Roof Inns. As for smaller businesses, they are for the most part not exempt under the law, so their time will come too.

Much more on web accessibility here and on ADA filing mills here.


  • I begin to wonder if I should take down my (sadly neglected) hobby website on the history of American naval aviation and replace it with a copy of this story…

    It’s linked on my screen name, if anyone cares.

  • Is this a comment against the law that requires websites be accessible? Or is it a comment against the law that allows for enforcement of that law?

    If it is the first, I think there is a pretty good cost/benefit question. I believe that the battle was fought and won (or lost, depending on whose side you are on).

    If it is the second, I think there is less of a question. If we have the law, we have to have enforcement and it is either by the State or by individuals who hire lawyers.

    This is another policy question that must be addressed. Some criticize the cost, but offer up no viable remedy.

    • There are dozens of user end applications, specialized browsers and browser add-ons to address accessibility issues for the disabled. In fact, especially with the internet, it is far easier to address such issues from the user end than from the web site. In fact, trying to address these issues from the web sites themselves will likely make the sites much harder for the majority of people to use. The law is beyond stupid.

      • Well, but that’s the thing–per the ADA, disabled persons should not have to install end-user applications, specialized browsers, blah blah blah. Everything should be completely useable for them, exactly the same way that a non-disabled user could just interact with the website and not need to do anything special first.

        It’s the reason that “owner offered to accomodate individual disabled person’s needs” is not actually compliant with the ADA.

        And it makes a kind of sense. If the owner runs out to one person and offers to do things for them that they wouldn’t do for another person, then why is that first person so different? Let’s all look at them, stare at them, wonder about them and why they’re being singled out for special treatment. Oh look, they’re disabled, let’s all stare at this person’s unique deformity. Sure hope they like being the center of attention!

        • First, you can’t compare a bricks and mortar business to a website for these purposes.

          With a physical business, accessibility measures have a most a negligible effect on normal peoples ability to access the business. With a web site, the only things they can do at the website end for accessibility will have a large negative impact on the sites usability for normal people.

          Second, my understanding is that the ADA does not explicitly address websites and online businesses. What is happening is that the government and lawyers specializing in ADA suits are trying to stretch ADA provisions meant for physical businesses to cover websites.

          • “With a physical business, accessibility measures have a most a negligible effect on normal peoples ability to access the business.”

            Really? Places already have significant requirements for architecture that result from ADA compliance. Hallway width, door placement and size and type, architectural features (read up on Hollister Clothing, or maybe the Squeeze Inn, or what about Chile Lindo?)

            I am not trying to defend the ADA. I’m explaining why your “just let the disabled people solve it themselves” is not in accordance with established practice.

          • DensityDuck,

            You are missing my point. I am not saying that it’s easy or cheap for bricks and mortar businesses. At least with physical meat space businesses all those design elements don’t interfere with normal people’s ability to use the space/business.

            This is not likely to be the case with websites.

            “I am not trying to defend the ADA. I’m explaining why your “just let the disabled people solve it themselves” is not in accordance with established practice.”

            First, I am not suggesting that disabled people solve it themselves. There are established user end solutions that have been built by professionals.

            What you are saying is equivalent to saying that all stores must make their signs bigger so nearsighted and farsighted people can get by without glasses or contacts.

            Second, there is no established practice when it comes to the ADA and websites. In fact the very notion of applying the ADA to websites is as you say not in accordance with established practice.

          • It is not going to “interfere with people’s ability to use websites” that the baseline content be restricted to a flat text file with HTML 1.0 coding.

            “I am not suggesting that disabled people solve it themselves.”

            That is exactly what you are suggesting when you say that “user end solutions” exist.

            “What you are saying is equivalent to saying that all stores must make their signs bigger so nearsighted and farsighted people can get by without glasses or contacts.”

            Signage standards are part of the ADA.

            “Second, there is no established practice when it comes to the ADA and websites.”

            There was no established ADA practice for anything prior to the ADA, so I don’t know what you’re objecting to. If it’s decided that it applies to websites, then standards will be developed.

      • I am blind and use a screen reader. I also use internet explorer, firefox and chrome… There are web accessibility standards propogated by the w3c that should be followed. Regardless of all the applications, special browsers, special add-ons, etc… You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig, and if it doesn’t follow the rules the programs can’t just figure it out. There is no magic in programming, only blood sweat and tears.

        • “There is no magic in programming, only blood sweat and tears.”

          There are also trade offs. No software, no website can be all things for all people.

          The internet is a primarily visual medium. No law will ever be able to change that.

        • Cecil,

          The W3C is a voluntary organization. It if free to set standards, but it people are free to ignore those standards within sites.

          By making sites comply with some sort of standards, the rest of the world will pay for it. Websites will have to have larger amounts of code to comply if the ADA “requirement” is passed onto the sites. I am not sure how many sites are accessed by users on a daily basis, but even small increases in the code can have huge effects. I believe MattS is right in that the better solution is to have end user programs / apps and push for sites to comply with the W3C standards.

          What will be interesting is that if Apple wins its appeal and case against the FBI on the theory that code is a form of free speech, does the government have the ability to demand that code for websites “say” or “express” something the government demands?

          • Accessibility is content neutral. I’ve got a b.s. in computer science and i’ve been programming since it was bitnet and arpanet… W3C sets the standard of what is html and what web servers and clients should do given certain tags in code. So yes, it’s voluntary much like ansi or the metric system, etc are “voluntary”.
            As for accessibility degrading the experience for “normal” folks, go buy a clue. Visual medium? So he takes a picture of his posts and puts up a picture that takes up ten – fifty times the bandwidth each time/? Nope, he posts nice, accessible, readable text. That permits a screen reader to convert it to speech, someone who sees but not so good to blow it up as large as they need it, etc… And that hurts your experience here how? Maybe even visit the w3c site and see what their accessibility standards consist of, what tools they have for measuring accessibility and generally educate yourself. I have fed a wife and children turning out code, what is your qualification?
            Is it perfect? No. Do I advocate lawsuits for sites that prefer not to have my business? No. Do I make statements on the law? No, not my department except what impact it has on me personally…

        • Amen, and studies show that when sighted users go to sites that are W3C compliant sites, they like them better. Screen user manufactures continue to try to keep up with things
          and blind users continue to shell out more money for these products, but the websites must do their part. We’re talking 1s and 0s not the expensive brick and morter solutions that are already accepted practice. We’re humans, we’re equal and we’re in the marketplace, the job market and the educational system. It’s a digital world nowadays, and to fail to make web sites and other digital interfaces accessible is massively harmful discrimination.

    • Well, first there is a question as to whether the ADA applies to websites. That question was answered by the courts years ago with a resounding “no” until a denial of a motion to dismiss in NFB v. Target. Problem is, there are NO legal standards for website accessibility…..NONE – so, website operators are shooting at a moving ghost of a target.

      So, let’s assume the ADA does apply – then what is accessibility? Oh, and BTW to the person who said the ADA does not require disabled persons to install reader software – wrong. Do some research.

      The DOJ was supposed to issue guidance 3 years ago. They have since delayed until 2018….why? So P’s attorneys can collect a nice ransom first. Funny thing is, as websites attempt to meet the only standard out there, WCAG 2.0 (not a legal standard BTW), they have no assurance that millions of dollars in development costs are going to shield them from liability.

      And who collects? Not the disabled. Nope, it’s the P’s bar. In the meantime, much innovation in web design is stifled b/c of the inability for readers to interpret the code.

  • I worked on the retail industry’s efforts to obtain a realistic final ADA law in 1989and 1990, and with the DOJ in its regulations. The result was that at a meeting I predicted that there will be a blind guy in a wheelchair as some lawyer’s client, and he will end up owning some of the companies present. I was joking, as you do when whistling past a grave yard, and it seems I was not far off the mark on these harassing suits.

  • @ MattS: Good reply to Allan.

  • A lot of wasted duplicative effort might be avoided if the Library of Congress were given a commission and sufficient resources to set up an on-line portal through which handicapped customers could read accessible-ized versions of target websites.

  • Ahem, it is quite clear none of you have a clue. The easiest way to be accessible is to follow w3c standards… You know, the organization that says what is html to begin with. Blind folks use a screen reader and don’t need the web site to talk… What they do need is for the site developer to follow the rules. That means not doing some fun things like embedding text into a background image because the screen readers don’t process background images and it’s not within the rules for html. W3c lays out what is accessible for web design and even have tools to test your site for compliance.
    Oh my god! It’s one of those blind folks, shutter the site!
    From a personal perspective, I find that email to the developer/owner of the site explaining what is wrong, some suggestions for fixing it and some patience works pretty good. My suggestion for at least one answer to the court would be, once the federal court system is section 508 compliant then you can hear this case. Otherwise, you are just punishing me to appease your own guilt… 😀
    Text is the blind person’s friend.

    • You know, as part of a project during a class I took recently, students helped create websites for several area nonprofits. I would hate to see those nonprofits – or even the students – be sued because they didn’t make the website accessible enough. Or maybe we even *did* make them accessible enough, and one of the people running the nonprofit decides they know just enough to make a change (they certainly won’t be able to ask those of us who made the site; the class has graduated) and that breaks the accessibility. Heck, even if they know enough to avoid certain mistakes, they can’t be sure that they know *everything*. To avoid the *potential* for this happening, they must instead spend thousands of dollars hiring a professional.

      w3c standards? Sure, great. But those standards are constantly changing. And how strict are the guidelines? If I put an h3 tag after an h1 tag because I like the size better, will I get into trouble because I skipped a level, which is discouraged? I mean, I *could* have put in an h2 tag and used CSS to modify it, and then maybe a little more code so that the other h2 tags on the page aren’t affected… without actual *legal* guidelines, how can I know what will and will not get me sued?

  • I do have to say that if ADA compliance is what it takes to reduce the number of garbage, overcoded, ad-stuffed webpages, then I’m all for it.

  • For state purposes, (E.g. New York State Human Rights Law, similar to ADA) Isn’t the question whether or not a website is a public accommodation at all?

    If so, why is a book not a public accommodation?

    A television set?
    If so, why did the legislature not mention these last two things in the law(they were invented and in common use at the time the law was written).
    Easy answer: they were not considered public accommodations, and were not subject to state Human Rights Law.
    This seems to be a classic case of mission creep, by litigation or regulation.

    • Maybe check out the mission of the national library service? As far as I know every state has a library for the blind and physically handicapped. It’s a lending library that specializes in recorded, braille and large print books/magazines/sheet music. They’ve gone digital but because of the “specialized format” required in the law they can’t just let you download a daisy format book even though that is one of the reasons for daisy in the first place. So you either get a reader from the library or buy your own (I bought mine, it’s lots smaller and much more advanced), but it works out in the end. Is everything recorded? Nope, resource limitations. But between that, ebooks that are accessible (not all are) and services like bookshare I get by.
      As for tv/movies, check out described video service. Some libraries lend them and you can actually buy your own! 😀