April 22 2020

Learning from Recent Retail Website ADA Lawsuits

online retailers website ADAWine has always been a part of countless cultures and recently, has reached new levels of popularity in the U.S. But what if you were excluded from this culture because you couldn't purchase this online easily like others without a disability? The Americans with Disabilities Act gives civil rights protections to individuals with disabilities. But how does this play out online, not only in the wine industry but with retail sites overall?

In 2020, the internet is no longer just a nice-to-have tool but rather a utility for everyday living. The COVID-19 pandemic underscored the fact that buying items from websites is a new norm for everyone, and helped reiterate that retail websites must be just as accessible to all consumers as physical spaces.

The complaint against Wine Enthusiast

In May of 2019, Wine Enthusiast Inc. learned the importance of website ADA compliance the hard way. They were sued in Federal Court in a case that is ongoing, where it was alleged that:

“[Wine Enthusiast] deprives blind and visually-impaired individuals the benefits of its online goods, content, and services—all benefits it affords nondisabled individuals—thereby increasing the sense of isolation and stigma among these Americans that Title III was meant to redress.”

Importantly, the suit has been filed by an individual who has listed thirteen demands, all of which result in an accessible site. It was not by someone who was simply looking to profit from website inaccessibility.

Lessons for other retail websites

Even if you are not a wine retailer, the learnings from the Wine Enthusiast case are an important lesson for all websites. A direct quote from the allegations in the complaint illustrates these key learnings:

“In addition to researching and purchasing Defendants products and services from the comfort and convenience of their homes, consumers may also use Defendant’s Website to contact customer service by phone and email, find local retailers, sign up to receive product updates, product news, and special promotions, review important legal notices like Defendant’s Privacy Policy and Terms and Conditions, track online orders, and more.”

The defendant in this case is Wine Enthusiast, however the description from the complaint could be of any retailer; anyone selling or promoting a product or service such as wine, medical supplies, tires, tax preparation, banks and credit unions, and much more.

Impacts on your website accessibility efforts

While there is a clear need for Federal guidelines to mandate how sites should be made accessible, what sets this case apart from the others is that the plaintiff uses a statement from the Department of Justice (DOJ) as evidence that Wine Enthusiast must make their site accessible. From Assistant Attorney General Stephen E. Boyd,

“The Department first articulated its interpretation that the ADA applies to public accommodations’ websites over 20 years ago. This interpretation is consistent with the ADA’s title III requirement that the goods, services, privileges, or activities provided by places of public accommodation be equally accessible to people with disabilities.”

Further, The DOJ states that there is nothing more to say about accessibility at a Federal level and instead they clarify that how a site owner makes their site accessible isn’t up to the DOJ. To make sites most accessible, the industry has chosen to use the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and courts throughout the country have mandated the same.

In an era where websites are more and more important, they must also be fully accessible to all individuals. WCAG guidelines are the new norm and must be followed when designing and developing websites. From color contrast and font size, to alternative image text and special code for screen readers, taking the extra time to create a site against current WCAG 2.1 guidelines will create a fair user experience for all. In addition, making a website fully accessible can also protect your business, institution or organization from legal liability.

Websites are places of public accommodation

The DOJ clearly states that any website used by the public is a public accommodation and must be accessible. Looking to run an ADA compliance audit on your own website or discuss an ADA retrofit or site redesign? Contact us – we’re here to help.

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posted by
Dan Seagull
Dan Seagull
Certified Professional in Accessibility Core Competencies (CPACC)

ZAG Interactive is a full-service digital agency in Glastonbury, CT, offering website design, development, marketing and digital strategy to clients nationwide. See current job openings.
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