The attorneys' fees provision of Title III does provide incentive for lawyers to specialize and engage in serial ADA litigation, but a disabled plaintiff does not obtain financial reward from attorneys' fees unless they act as their own attorney, or as mentioned above, a disabled plaintiff resides in a state that provides for minimum compensation and court fees in lawsuits. Moreover, there may be a benefit to these "private attorneys general" who identify and compel the correction of illegal conditions: they may increase the number of public accommodations accessible to persons with disabilities. "Civil rights law depends heavily on private enforcement. Moreover, the inclusion of penalties and damages is the driving force that facilitates voluntary compliance with the ADA." Courts have noted:
In court, Netflix tried to argue that websites should not be part of ADA compliance regulations, as there is no physical structure / location. They also argued that websites should not be in scope of ADA as there is no public component (the original ADA compliance law specifically called out that ADA rules apply primarily to services, locations, and products that are supposed to be open to the public).
These statistics are especially important when you consider the potential spending power of people with disabilities. Unfortunately, if the website isn’t accessible, then it is excluding more than 60 million Americans14. Additionally, 71 percent of customers14 with disabilities will instantly leave the site if it does not meet their accessibility needs. Another 80 percent of customers14 with disabilities have stated that they will spend more on a website that has improved accessibility features. Fortunately, if you follow Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)7, then you can appeal to millions of individuals who want to enjoy the same online experiences as their friends, family, and neighbors. Giving them the chance is not only right, but it is also in accordance with ADA regulations.
The truth is, when you’re assembling like a furniture, you’re not a professional furniture builder, and therefore the quality and the output is not going to be as good. And that metaphor applies to website design. Most people are not professional digital marketers or designers or understand user personas, or how to get traffic, or any of those things. And so, not only are you using all of your time to build the website but then you’re not getting as high-quality an output as you would as if you just hired someone who did that full time.
Additionally, in February 2018, Congress passed the ADA Education and Reform Act, a bill designed to make it harder for disabled Americans to sue businesses for discrimination. Republican lawmakers who wrote and passed the bill argue that the law will help curb “frivolous” lawsuits, while opponents have argued that this law will gut the ADA, essentially giving businesses little reason to follow the ADA guidelines at all.
Federal law isn't the only consideration for businesses. Additionally, each state interprets the law differently. Consider the case against Netflix in 2012. Lawsuits were brought in federal court in Massachusetts and California. Netflix was accused of violating the ADA by not offering "closed captioning" options for its Internet streamed movies. Illustrating the complexity of this issue, the courts reached completely opposite decisions. Massachusetts held that Netflix must comply with the ADA, while the California court found that Netflix did not fall under the ADA's definition of "public accommodation."
All of that was well and good in 1990, when the then-nascent Internet was not the ubiquitous presence in the lives of Americans that it is today. For example, retail shopping in-person at a mall in 1990 was booming, unlike today where online shopping has completely changed the game for retailers. As time and technologies evolved however, the Department of Justice (DOJ), the entity charged with enforcing the ADA, hinted but never definitively stated that Title III may indeed be applicable to websites.
Until the ADA is updated to address the special case of website accessibility, or the Department of Justice releases its website accessibility regulations, complying with WCAG 2.0 Level AA is the best way to ensure that people with disabilities have equal access to your website. The overview below is a great starting point about meeting the WCAG 2.0 Level AA recommendations.
I should mention one caveat to all of this. Businesses that are required to comply but don't have the ability to bring their websites into compliance can provide an accessible alternative to provide the same information, goods, and services that they provide online, like a staffed phone line. The trick, however, is that this option has to provide at least equal access, including in terms of hours of operation. And, as we know, the internet is around 24/7, so good luck with that.
In January of 2017 the federal government moved forward with the adoption of WCAG 2.0 AA as the standard for federal agency sites, leading many in the accessibility community to believe that a full adoption of the WCAG 2.0 Level AA standards by the DOJ for websites both public and private would be forthcoming. As of the writing of this post, that has neither occurred nor been added to the DOJ’s agenda, likely due to the installation of a new administration and other legislative priorities.
Recent years have seen an uptick in federal lawsuits filed against businesses and governments, alleging that their website violates the ADA by being insufficiently accessible to people with disabilities. In 2017, there were at least 814 such lawsuits against organizations in a variety of industries, from banks and credit unions to restaurants and e-commerce websites. The defendants include small businesses as well as major corporations such as Nike, Burger King, and the Hershey Company.