On October 1, 2020, Congressmen Lou Correa (D-CA) and Ted Budd (R-NC) introduced the bipartisan Online Accessibility Act (H.R. 8478) which would create guidance to help businesses ensure their website complies with the ADA. The purpose of the bill is to increase website accessibility and reduce predatory lawsuits filed against businesses.
The bill would provide the information small businesses need to comply with the website accessibility requirements of the ADA. According to Congressman Budd, in 2019, over 2,000 website accessibility lawsuits were filed by plaintiffs alleging that certain websites were not ADA compliant. If enacted, this new law would provide guidance to businesses that, if followed, would eliminate the risk of liability.
The ADA requires that public accommodations must be accessible to persons with disabilities. The lawsuits that have been filed relative to websites allege that the websites are not accessible to people with disabilities (vision, hearing, or other impairments).
To date, large retailers and other “deep pocket” businesses have been the primary targets of these suits, but the multifamily housing industry is at risk for this new form of “drive-by” accessibility testing. These claims would not be brought under the Fair Housing Act but under the ADA. There is no fair housing requirement that websites be accessible, but the ADA applies to public spaces, which includes leasing offices since they are open to the public. Community websites are now a primary source of information on rental options, and unless those websites meet accessibility standards, the information may be inaccessible to individuals with vision, hearing, or other impairments.
Unless done so already, all housing providers with websites should get a professional review of that website by someone knowledgeable about the requirements for website accessibility. This review should include the company website and that of each property. The review should examine the following issues:
- Do you have audio content that is not accompanied by a text alternative or captioning? Such content is not accessible to persons with hearing impairments.
- Are links on your website signified by a different color text only – or are they also underlined? Links marked only by a change in the color of the text may be hard for users who are color blind or have other vision impairments to differentiate from the non-linked text.
- Does your site have the option for text to be increased in size without losing content?
- Can the visitor use the keyboard to navigate if the visitor is not able to use a mouse due to Parkinson’s disease or other disability?
The government has been slow to issue guidelines on website accessibility and it is no sure thing that they will do so unless the bill noted above is passed into law. In the meantime, the current industry standard is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG 2.0). The WCAG standards, published by a working group of experts, have been widely accepted as providing full and equal access to people with disabilities by most countries and as well as state and local governments. More information about this standard may be found at https://www.w3.org/WAI/standards-guidelines/wcag/.