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Tips for Dentists: How to Avoid Website Accessibility Lawsuits


Website Accessibility: The Courts, The Law & You

Are you the unhappy recipient of an email like this, dripping with scare tactics:  

“If your website isn’t accessible to the disabled, you are walking around with a target on your back. Right now, unscrupulous lawyers are threatening dentists with lawsuits for being in violation of the American with Disabilities Act. Protect yourself!”

First and foremost: Do not panic. Do not mutter Shakespearean quotes about killing all the lawyers.

But then again, don’t entirely discount the problem.

Yes, it’s true that unscrupulous lawyers have created an uptick in what some would call shakedown lawsuits. These are suits targeting websites that are not user friendly to disabled people.

In fact, these lawsuits have caused enough disruption that the American Dental Association has addressed the issue by offering suggestions and strategies for dealing with lawyer “demand letters,” the precursor to a lawsuit.

Website accessibility cases can be designed for a quick return in the way of legal fees for the lawyer. They bear an uncanny  resemblance to the drive-by lawsuits “60 Minutes” investigated in 2016. (What’s a “Drive-By” Lawsuit?)

"60 Minutes" dissected shakedown lawsuits targeting businesses that were allegedly in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (AwDA) at their place of business. This could include a sign for disabled parking that had the wrong wording. Or it could be a handicap parking space that wasn't the right dimensions. 

What’s that got to do with websites?

Fast forward to today. These drive-by legal disputes over physical accessibility in the real world have morphed into a similar tactic when it comes to website accessibility on the Internet.

Except, whereas there are specific rules and regs for brick-and-mortar businesses, infractions involving website accessibility isn’t cut and dried. When it comes to websites, no actual standards have been codified into law. Even the courts disagree on where the lines are drawn when it comes to virtual accessibility.

 

In the absence of website regulations, the courts are filling the void with a patchwork of decisions that often conflict with one another. The uncertain legal landscape has fueled a surge of lawsuits and demand letters filed and sent on behalf of individuals with disabilities alleging that the websites of thousands of public accommodations are not accessible. Minh Vu at Seyfarth Shaw

 

And that … that right there … is why you cannot completely ignore the issue of website accessibility.  

You don’t have to panic, but you should pause and assess the current landscape.

  1. For starters: Yes, dentists are receiving “demand letters” claiming their websites are not accessible.
  2. Yes, legal demand letters can cost money, one way or another. Typically, the letter requests a payment to avoid a lawsuit and perhaps insists on prompt compliance with the law. But going to court also means money out of your pocket.   
  3. Your task: Determine if you are at risk by assessing your website. The main question to ask yourself is whether your website meets accessibility standards. This is something of a trick question as, technically, there aren’t any specific standards. However, the Department of Justice (DOJ) regularly uses Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 Level AA  as its “de facto” standard.

Don't Be the Low Hanging Fruit

When it comes to avoiding a lawsuit over accessibility, commonsense says you don't want to be the low hanging fruit. That is, don't be a website that lacks basic accessibilty. It just makes sense that most shakedown artists target websites that are blatantly inaccessible. So don't be that guy. 

In addition, there is a silver lining to stepping back and critiquing your website’s accessibility. When you address the needs of the disabled, not only will you broaden the scope of potential patients and create good will, but many of the tactics that make your website user friendly for the disabled, also make your site Google friendly, too. You do well by doing good.

One good example is adding transcripts to your videos. In addition to helping out vision impaired visitors, transcripts are a boon for Google, which can’t “watch" a video. But Google can "read" a transcript and then use the information to match websites with user queries.  

Website Accessibility Checklist

If you are unsure whether your website is up to snuff, here are some common accessibility issues:

  1. Missing or poor alternative text on images  When properly tagged, images on your website can be “read” by screen readers to assist visually impaired visitors. Without descriptive text for images, a blind reader has no way of knowing if the art is a logo, a link to another page, a photo important to the content, or simply a decorative flourish.
  2. Improper use of header tags Header tags (H1-H6) provide structure for a web page, particularly a long page. When used correctly, these graduated headlines provide a hierarchy to your content, much like an outline highlighting main points. They also allow readers to quickly skim the content.
  3. Meaningless link text  Website users who rely on assistive technology, such as screen readers, may skim content on a page by jumping from link to link. If link text is generic (such as “click here” or “read more”), it is difficult for disabled users to quickly assess the content or the link’s destination content. A variation on meaningless text links are links that use the same words but lead to different resources or content.
  4. Link areas that are too small – “Clickable” areas that are too small prevent users with dexterity issues from selecting links and navigating successfully.
  5. Failure to use proper labels – If page elements are improperly labeled, assistive technology cannot link to the proper input elements. This can make it difficult for users to understand the purpose of the input element.
  6. Improper markup on tables – Poorly marked up tables prevent screen readers from relaying information in a way the visually impaired can understand. Since the users cannot see the table, which shows how content in the individual cells relate to each other, poorly tagged tables make the information confusing.
  7. Poor color combinations – Low-contrast color combinations makes information difficult or impossible for people with low vision or color blindness to read.
  8. Embedding non-accessible documents – Websites often rely on PDFs to provide detailed information. However, if PDFs are saved in an “image” format, screen readers cannot “read” them. Ideally, any information in a PDF should be offered as content on a web page instead.   
  9. Small text size – People with vision problems should be able to resize text on a website for better legibility. Not only should text be resizable, but when resized, it should reflow through the document and the page should adjust without the loss of information or content overlap.
  10. Forms with limited usability – Electronic form elements should be organized in a logical tab order for users who use a keyboard instead of a mouse. In addition, the fields need to be accurately labeled for screen readers.
  11. Video without transcripts – Providing a transcript for videos allows the hearing impaired to glean the information offered in videos. Transcripts also help your website SEO by allowing search engines to understand the information provided in your videos. Transcripts even appeal to hurried website visitors who may not care to sit through a video, but will readily scan a transcript.  

Website accessibilty is a moving target. In fact, as of July 20, 2017, the Trump Administration has placed website accessibility rulemaking on DOJ's "inactive" list. The implication is that, for the foreseeable future, DOJ will not be adding to the regulations currently in place. 

But be forewarned, inaction at DOJ does not guarantee inaction in the courts. As noted above, accessibility lawsuits have been on the increase despite the fact there are no detailed rules and regs on the books.   

Do you have questions about your website's accessibility? We would be happy to answer them. Just call or write.