As more businesses in the past few years have faced lawsuits claiming their websites are not accessible for people with disabilities, leaders of Tag Communications in Davenport decided to make some changes.
For years, the Americans with Disabilities Act had been focused on physical barriers in brick-and-mortar facilities, requiring public places to make accommodations, such as building wheelchair ramps and elevators. But in the age of e-commerce, the ADA is requiring companies to make their websites fully accessible for disabled people, namely those who are visually-impaired.
"About three years ago under the Obama administration, the Department of Justice started aggressively prosecuting websites that aren't compliant (with the ADA)," Tag President Randy Jacobs said. "(We) made the decision that we need to start changing how we're operating with our website to make sure we're compliant, and then start educating other businesses to help them meet the guidelines."
Tag Communications will host a free seminar on Nov. 12 for businesses interested in learning more about website accessibility.
In the past decade, activist groups and individuals have filed claims against businesses asserting they were unable to access features on their websites. In 2008, Target settled a class action lawsuit with the National Federation of the Blind, for example, and was required to pay damages of $6 million.
In the past several years, more of these lawsuits have been filed, including against Hobby Lobby, CVS Pharmacy and others. Last year, website accessibility lawsuits grew at a record pace, with more than 800 suits filed, according to Forbes and research by the Chicago law firm Seyfarth Shaw.
The DOJ has taken regulatory actions against entities for not meeting the requirements of Title III of the ADA. When evaluating web content accessibility, the DOJ relies on standards in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0, or WCAG 2.0.
The nearly 200-page document includes rules for developing websites, such as meeting color and contrast standards for text and backgrounds, providing closed captioning for video, removing time limits for activities, offering spoken word versions of text and eliminating the need to use a mouse.
Tag Communications CEO Michael Vondran said following the string of national lawsuits, the company began restructuring its website and producing videos with closed captioning. And, Tag has added building accessible websites to its list of services.
"This isn't something you can just go in and aesthetically improve. You can't band-aid it. It's foundational," Vondran said. "There are things you can do to comply to some degree, but why not fix the foundation? It affects every web page, every content deck, every picture."
Vondran said it's only a matter of time before small, local businesses are affected.
"It's been an uphill battle locally because so far it's all been large corporations," Digital Officer Don Farber said. "But everyone is a watchdog now and it only takes one person who can't read the website because they're visually impaired. And, it's just the right thing to do. One in five people in the U.S. have a disability of one form or another. It makes you a good corporate citizen, but it also opens up the door for even more customers."
"This is a bit of a two-headed monster, a bad one and a good one," Vondran said. "The bad part is if you're not compliant, you run the risk of litigation from a certain part of the population because of their inability to participate with you on the web. The good part is you can increase your audience by 10 to 20 percent."
The number of lawsuits continue to grow across the country, in part because the DOJ has yet to release promised clarifications on website accessibility. Many anticipated the DOJ would issue a final rule-making for governmental entities and businesses in 2017, but the date has been pushed back.
Last month, several legislators, including Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, asked the DOJ to clarify the law on website accessibility.
In the meantime, Vondran said the next version, WCAG 2.1, could be released in the near future. He encouraged businesses to take action to update their websites now, rather than wait until complying becomes more complex.
"We guarantee we have met compliance standards at the time of launch," Farber said. "But any changes to the website moving forward could put it out of compliance."
"This is a virtual storefront, so once a year, do a check and make sure you're meeting standards," Vondran said. "It moves so fast."
As websites increasingly interact with the global economy, Tag Communications also builds websites to be compliant with the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation, or GDRP, Farber said.
"We recommend to our clients that your website be GDRP compliant as well as WCAG compliant, because in my opinion, it's only a matter of time before the two merge," Farber said.
Business leaders hoping to learn more about complying with accessible website regulations can attend a free seminar held by Tag Communications at 1:30 p.m. on Nov. 12, at the Quad-Cities Chamber of Commerce, 331 W. 3rd St., Davenport. Online registration is available by visiting Tag's website.