Is Your Website Accessible? If Not, You Could Be Violating the ADA

Do you recognize the name Juan Carlos Gil? Well, if you’ve built a WordPress site that provides services or sells products to the general public, then you should probably take a moment or two to acquaint yourself with his story.

On June 13, 2017, U.S. District Judge Robert Scola of Florida ruled in favor of Mr. Gil in the case Juan Carlos Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc. (case no. 16-23020). It was determined that the Winn-Dixie grocery chain was in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The interesting thing about this case is that it had absolutely nothing to do with their physical stores. On the contrary, the issue was with their website, which prevented Mr. Gil “the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations” that in-store shoppers received. Mr. Gil is legally blind and also has cerebral palsy, and so he relies on screen readers in order to shop online.

Perhaps even more noteworthy about this trial is the fact that it’s the first-of-its-kind and could spell big changes for the web—and your work as a web developer. Mr. Gil has filed almost 70 lawsuits against sites he believes to be in violation of the ADA. He certainly won’t be the last person to do so either.

Here’s what you need to know about the trial’s verdict, what it means for you as a web developer, and what you can do to keep your WordPress sites on the right side of the ADA.

The Winn-Dixie Website: Why Did Accessibility Matter?

Okay, so here’s the lowdown on Winn-Dixie and Mr. Gil’s court battle:

Winn-Dixie is a chain of grocery stores in the southeastern part of the United States. Currently, they have about 500 stores in total.

Mr. Gil, having shopped at Winn-Dixie previously, wanted to be able to make use of the site for a number of purposes. Specifically, he was interested in using the store locator functionality, coupons, and pharmacy features. However, he found that the JAWS screen reader tool was unable to access a number of those features on the site. In addition, he reported having issues opening about 90% of the tabs on the website. Experts weighed in during the trial and confirmed those same inaccessibility issues.

Now, despite having undergone a $7 million website revamp in the previous year, the designers of the Winn-Dixie site had not considered accessibility at the time. When it came time to argue Mr. Gil’s statement, they chose not to dispute the lack in accessibility. Instead, they focused on the argument that their site was not a place of public accommodation.

This is where the case really gets interesting.

The ADA’s Title III regulations stipulate the following:

“Title III prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in the activities of places of public accommodations (businesses that are generally open to the public and that fall into one of 12 categories listed in the ADA, such as restaurants, movie theaters, schools, day care facilities, recreation facilities, and doctors’ offices) and requires newly constructed or altered places of public accommodation—as well as commercial facilities (privately owned, nonresidential facilities such as factories, warehouses, or office buildings)—to comply with the ADA Standards.”

Although a website does not have a physical structure that would make it eligible for this law, Judge Scola ruled that it was still in violation of Title III because of the close connection between Winn-Dixie’s physical stores and the website. Since the website served as a gateway to and companion to the physical shopping experience, Scola believed the website to be a “place of public accommodation.”

Why Is This Case a Big Deal for Web Developers?

Upon finding Winn-Dixie in the wrong, the judge ruled the following:

  • Winn-Dixie now faces a three-year injunction. During that time, they need to immediately bring their site up to speed with WCAG 2.0 criteria.
  • Mandatory updates over this three-year period will also be required in order to keep their site in compliance.
  • Although they do not owe Mr. Gil any sort of settlement fee outside of attorneys’ costs, they estimate the cost of the website accessibility fix could be upwards of $250,000.
  • Because Winn-Dixie has a number of third parties that manage and use various parts of their site, those entities are now also required to be in compliance with WCAG 2.0.
  • Winn-Dixie must place an accessibility policy on their website, notifying customers of their ability to cater to individuals with disabilities.
  • Finally, all employees responsible for working on the website will have to undergo accessibility training.

As you can see, the ramifications of having a website in violation of the ADA are huge. And because this is the first federal case related to web accessibility that went to trial and won, web developers will really need to watch their backs now.

If Mr. Gil has launched 70 lawsuits of his own, this may only be the start of a wave of ADA cases brought against website owners. This means a few things for you as a web developer:

  • Your process will need to change—at least for websites with similar “places of public accommodation” characteristics.
  • You’ll likely have to spend more time on each website you build to ensure that it’s WCAG 2.0 compliant.
  • And, fortunately, you could see a spike in redesign requests as former clients proactively seek out your help for getting their sites up to speed. (Or you can use this as an opportunity to pitch a redesign to them.)

I think what this lawsuit and ruling really demonstrates is how large of a role websites actually play in the retail experience. Regardless of whether or not your sites have physical store counterparts, inaccessibility will no longer be tolerated as it becomes the norm to provide a universally friendly landscape for all consumers.

12 Tips to Make Your WordPress Site Accessible

Now that a company as well-known as Winn-Dixie has caught the attention of consumers and the courts, who do you think will be next?

Seeing as how the ADA clearly defined which businesses they target with the Title III regulation, the corresponding websites for those types of establishments would be the first place to start. Though I would argue that any website that provides services or sells products online should aim to be fully accessible.

In terms of what you can actually do to make your sites accessible, there’s obviously a lot to think about. For starters, acquaint yourself with WCAG 2.0. That is now the de facto standard everyone should follow.

Here are some other best practices to keep in mind when designing an accessible website:

  1. Use text alternatives and descriptions for images, video, and other media.
  2. Used closed captioning for video.
  3. Make your site keyboard-friendly so a mouse or finger is not required to move around it.
  4. Simplify the navigation. You may also want to think about adding breadcrumbs.
  5. Create a consistent layout.
  6. Design with sharp color contrasts between the text and background.
  7. Use symbols to clarify the purpose of key elements if color blindness or other visual impairments prevent color signals from directing users to where you want them to go.
  8. Use header tags for clearer organization of text.
  9. Use clear labels for all form fields.
  10. Include text resizing capabilities.
  11. Enable voice search.
  12. Allow users to disable JavaScript.

WPMU DEV’s WP Checkup tool allows you to do a quick scan of your website’s accessibility and get recommendations for improvements. Just scroll down to the SEO section of the scan recommendations to find out more.

For more information on how to get your site up to speed in terms of accessibility (since there’s always more to be done), I’d recommend you also check out these other resources.

Web Accessibility Guides

Web Accessibility Tutorials

Information on Web Accessibility for Your Business

Wrapping Up

The Winn-Dixie trial and ruling may be the first of its kind, but it certainly won’t be the last we hear about inaccessible websites being penalized for not creating an amenable and universally friendly environment for all visitors. The ADA has issued its Title III guidelines for a reason, and with websites now playing a large part in what they refer to as “public accommodation,” it’s up to you as a developer to ensure your websites are in compliance with those regulations.

It may take time to get all your sites up to speed, which is why it’s important to always keep in mind the end goal here. Everything you do when building websites is ultimately to create a positive experience for all users—for your clients as well as their visitors. Creating a fully accessible website will ensure that no one gets left behind and that you’ve maximized every website’s potential to generate leads.