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Creating ADA-Compliant Event Websites (and Avoiding Predatory Lawsuits)

22 Feb, 2020

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

While many sports events are held in areas with parking and restrooms that are handicap-accessible, one obstacle to registration may be something owners don’t know about: their websites, where potential participants obtain information about the event.

The most worrisome part? It isn’t even clear what is involved in making websites ADA-compliant.

A recent article in SGB Media posed the question of website accessibility. Unfortunately, it noted, “there are no clear ADA regulations that define what compliant web content means, but if your business falls under ADA Title I or ADA Title III, your website needs to be “reasonably accessible” to persons with disabilities according to the ADA.”

So what does that mean? To understand a little better, it becomes imperative to look at the two ADA Titles mentioned:

Title I of the ADA has to do with employment, and the website for Information, Guidance and Training on the Americans With Disabilities Act notes that ADA is set up to help people with disabilities access the same employment opportunities and benefits available to people without disabilities. Employers must provide reasonable accommodations to qualified applicants or employees. (Note: A reasonable accommodation is defined as any modification or adjustment to a job or the work environment that will enable an applicant or employee with a disability to participate in the application process or to perform essential job functions).

Title III is more applicable to sports events as a rule, and particularly to traveling events. It deals with nondiscrimination on the basis of disability by public accommodations and in commercial facilities and prohibits private places of public accommodation from discriminating against individuals with disabilities. Examples of public accommodations include privately-owned, leased or operated facilities like hotels, restaurants, retail merchants, doctor’s offices, golf courses, private schools, day care centers, health clubs, sports stadiums, movie theaters, and so on – many of which could be encountered in planning for sports events.

As before, businesses are expected to make "reasonable modifications" to their usual ways of doing things when serving people with disabilities and also requires they take steps necessary to communicate effectively with customers with vision, hearing, and speech disabilities.  This title is regulated and enforced by the U.S. Department of Justice. 

Neither of these, unfortunately, pertains specifically to websites – which were not in existence at the time ADA was written. So what does it take to make those “reasonable accommodations” on a website?

A lot of work on the back end of sites, apparently. While ADA lawsuits were once focused on the physical access barriers to businesses, SGB Media notes that the latest lawsuits allege that private company websites qualify as places of public accommodation and sites without compatible screen-reading software deny plaintiffs the right of equal access. (Plaintiffs have also challenged the accessibility of mobile applications and online job sites.)

To comply, websites must be entirely in conformance, including HTML, CSS and JavaScript. The ADA has created a website toolkit for users, and it can be accessed free of charge. The document is extensive, and should be reviewed thoroughly; however, a few quick pointers include:

  • Adding text equivalents to every image
  • Refraining from having fixed colors and font settings since those with visual impairments may need to adjust them in order to see the information clearly
  • Including audio descriptions and captions for videos and posting documents in a text-based format, such as HTML or RTF (Rich Text Format), in addition to PDF. (Text-based formats are the most compatible with assistive technologies).

However, SGB Media points out, not all organizations have the resources to update their sites in this manner, leaving them vulnerable to lawsuits from unscrupulous litigators who can convince individuals, clubs and others to sue, saying they are being denied access. It adds that these lawsuits are rampant, targeting “large and small businesses across multiple industries, including the outdoor industry, over alleged website compliance violations. To date, neither the Congress nor the Department of Justice (DOJ) — the primary federal government agency responsible for enforcing the ADA — have clarified the law in terms of website accessibility compliance as it applies to companies.”

“Since as far back as 2003, the DOJ has attempted to create a uniform position regarding ADA website accessibility, but the language is vague. Regardless, the DOJ continues to state that publicly-accessible websites must also be accessible to persons with disabilities.”

Whatever that means, apparently.

SGB adds: “Ideally, the courts will use the DOJ’s guidance as a way to dismiss website accessibility lawsuits against companies who have made an effort, even if their efforts are not perfect. Some companies have demonstrated accessibility by offering a 24/7 phone number to provide information otherwise available only on their websites. Ultimately, Congress will need to pass legislation regarding ADA website accessibility. In the meantime, event owners should evaluate guidelines, perhaps with a consultant who specializes in such matters, to also evaluate risk.”

Unfortunately, the need to have ADA-accessible websites has given rise not just to predatory lawsuits but to scammers who claim to be able to bring websites into compliance, including those who threaten lawsuits if action is not taken. Those who want to learn to recognize such behavior can Google or search “ADA Website Trolls” (which results in more than two million hits) to understand how scams work – and how to recognize them.

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