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The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires businesses to accommodate people with disabilities. Every month in the United States, lawsuits are brought against businesses claiming ADA violations. When digital properties — like websites and apps — are involved, it becomes a bit tricky.

Public Spaces and Reasonable Accommodations

The legal parameters about ADA-compliant websites are not overt, as the act does not directly address websites. The phrases that come up over and over again are contained in Title II & Title III whereby businesses must make reasonable accommodations in public spaces. The lawsuit you’ll see below argues that the internet is a “public space,” and that imbalanced access even to non-transactional websites represents discrimination.

ADA-specific guidelines for “ADA-compliant websites” don’t exist, but there are standards that site owners can use to ensure accessibility. These are called the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines

Even with some of the complexity and confusion around this, eCommerce website owners cannot afford to be lax or cavalier, which is amply illustrated by the lengthy court case of Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores Inc.

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Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc.

In July 2016, Juan Carlos Gil filed suit against Winn-Dixie. Gil is a man with a visual disability who accessed the Winn-Dixie website using a screen reader. He filed suit under Title III of the ADA, after which a district court found that the Winn-Dixie website did indeed violate the ADA. In 2017, a district court denied a motion for judgment on the pleading but acknowledged that circuit courts are split on whether the ADA “public accommodation” is limited to physical locations. 

Winn-Dixie countered with the dispute that Gil had suffered no harm or injury, but Gil’s lawyers posited that the website interfered with his ability to equally enjoy the store’s goods and services. They went further to say that the website did in fact cause a concrete and particularized injury.

Here are some of the key points of discussions, which are important because this case has both referenced and informed the process of many others.

Types of Public Accommodation 

In the latest filed update in this court case, it is acknowledged that “The statutory language in Title III of the ADA defining ‘public accommodation’ is unambiguous and clear.” What’s more, it emphasizes that of all of the 12 listed types of locations in the ADA that require accommodation, none are intangible places or spaces, and websites are not included. This is, of course, interpreted differently in different cases. There still isn’t a global consensus on the application or limitation of these terms.

Limited Functionality

On the side of Winn-Dixie, the defense often referenced that the website admittedly has limited functionality. It is not an eCommerce site and does not facilitate transactions. What’s more, they emphasized that any transaction initiated on the website — such as coupon redemption or prescription pickup — must be completed in-store. Gil’s disabilities do not limit him from coming into the store.

The dissent obviously concluded the opposite: that without an auxiliary aid on the website, Gil is treated differently than sighted customers.

Comparable Experiences

To that last point, a key concept in dispute was whether Gil was receiving the same treatment, and afforded the same opportunities, as sighted customers. His legal counsel claimed discrimination because he did not have access to a comparable experience of “full and equal enjoyment” to both tangible and intangible services. The defense claimed that this took the ADA language in Title III out of context. What’s more, the language within Title III does differentiate between accommodations being “reasonable” versus being “necessary.”

Intangible Barriers

Another important nuance of this case that has kept it in court for so long is the conversation over what constitutes an “intangible barrier.” In other words, even if the Winn-Dixie website is not itself a place of public accommodation, it is inaccessible to individuals with disabilities, operating as an intangible barrier to accessing the same goods or services as Winn-Dixie stores.

The idea of whether a website has a sufficient “nexus,” or point of connection to a physical space like a store, is often the standard by which courts have judged whether the ADA was or was not violated.

Injunction and Updates

The lawsuit was followed by an injunction that Winn-Dixie modify its website for use by blind or visually impaired customers. The district court did enter a permanent injunction, requiring Winn-Dixie to make its website accessible to individuals with disabilities.

Build an Accessibility Compliant Website

As is clearly seen in this one example, ADA website compliance should be a high priority for any business, even those that don’t primarily operate online. In the second half of 2020, an average of 313 digital accessibility lawsuits were filed every month. This doesn’t encompass the number of accessibility lawsuits filed at a state level, or simple demand letters that never go to court. The problem is prevalent, and website owners have a responsibility to upgrade their sites to meet, then stay within, accessibility standards.

Ecommerce site owners are rarely malicious about running a digital property that isn’t accessible to everyone at all times. In fact, we find that a simple lack of awareness is often at the root of inaccessible sites. 

Whatever the core reason, merchants don’t have a choice about website accessibility compliance. It’s a must, both to avoid legal issues and to ensure maximum access to website visitors who are ready to make purchases.

We can explain all of this and more, plus work with you to get your site up to spec (and keep it that way). Contact the best eCommerce agency for website compliance and accessibility: we’ll help.

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