Legal Aspects of Accessibility

Digital accessibility is when technology provides inclusive and accessible experiences for everyone. According to prominent disability rights lawyer Lainey Feingold, “digital accessibility is a bridge connecting disabled people to technology and digital information.” This includes any technology or content on a website, app, software, etc. Digital accessibility is critical in our diversity, equity, and inclusion and provides access, privacy, and security for people with disabilities. 

A bridge connecting two sides of a city lit up at sunset.

Accessibility is a civil right. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law on July 26, 1990 and establishes the framework for regulations and guidelines surrounding accessibility. “The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in everyday activities.”  The ADA covers many aspects of providing an inclusive and accessible environment (including online environments), and there are ongoing efforts to provide additional digital accessibility standards and regulations. 

Recent lawsuits have also set a precedent for digital accessibility. “In January 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court effectively upheld the decision from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that organizations can be sued for inaccessible digital content in the case of Robles v. Domino's Pizza, LLC.” The lawsuit’s verdict confirmed that websites, such as Domino’s, are places of public accommodation and the current website prevented people who are blind or have low vision from accessing goods and services. 

As places of public accommodation, public universities also “must provide people with disabilities an equal opportunity to benefit from all of their programs, services, and activities.” Many universities, public institutions, and companies have been involved in legal actions around digital accessibility. Examples include Harvard and MIT, University of South Carolina, University of California, Berkeley, University of Kentucky, and many more. The number of digital accessibility lawsuits is continually on the rise, as seen in the following chart from Equidox:

A graph showing the increasing rate of lawsuits related to digital accessibility.
While we hope that fear is not the driving motivator for accessibility, it’s also important to keep in mind the outcomes of digital accessibility lawsuits. “Settlements for accessibility cases against universities have ranged from $100,000 to more than $8 million, depending on the severity of the issue and the number of students or other university community members affected by it. That does not include fees paid to attorneys.”

Many cases have ended in settlements with a stipulation that the company or organization is required to fix digital accessibility issues. When we follow federal accessibility requirements in our digital accessibility experiences, we are building a more inclusive and accessible environment for everyone while mitigating time-consuming, expensive, and avoidable legal repercussions.

Efforts to make things more accessible is often motivated by a desire to create a more inclusive experience for everyone. Accessibility should be a priority, and it should not be done to meet the bare minimum of legal requirements. However, being aware of accessibility laws can also be helpful in making sure everyone feels like they belong.

Additional Readings

  1. 2022 Digital Accessibility Legal Update
  2. Introduction to the Americans with Disabilities Act
  3. Robles v. Domino's Pizza, LLC, No. 17-55504 (9th Cir. 2019)
  4. Overview of NAD v. Harvard and NAD v. MIT Lawsuits
  5. Right Side of the Law
  6. Justice Department Secures Agreement with University of California, Berkeley to Make Online Content Accessible to People with Disabilities
  7. University of KY Settles Suit for Captioning of Football Games
  8. Higher Ed Accessibility Lawsuits, Complaints, and Settlements
  9. Digital Accessibility Lawsuits
  10. Settlements in Structured Negotiation
  11. Fear is a Poor Motivator for Accessibility