Web accessibility has increasingly become a focal point for online businesses in recent years. In the digital era, the importance of making sure every user has access to web content cannot be overstated. But what happens when this rightful concern becomes a potential legal pitfall for businesses?
A recent wave of demand letters related to web accessibility has left many business owners questioning their source. Are they from genuine concerned human plaintiffs, or are bots behind them?
What are Web Accessibility Demand Letters?
For those unfamiliar, a web accessibility demand letter is a legal notice sent to businesses alleging that their website is inaccessible according to the standards set by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). If true, these businesses must take specific actions to become compliant or face potential legal action. This can not only dent their reputation but also incur substantial legal fees.
The number of businesses receiving these letters has increased exponentially in recent years. In 2022, more than 1,500 demand letters were sent per week. While many of these lawsuits are initiated by people with disabilities, many have questioned whether these letters are starting to come from bots.
The Wave of Demand Letters
Ogletree Deakins, a reputable legal firm, has recently noticed some unusual patterns in the series of web accessibility demand letters received by their clients. The consistency in the phrasing, formatting, and even the nature of the complaints has led them to question if these are genuinely from diverse plaintiffs or if there’s a more automated process at play.
According to Ogletree Deakins, bots may use artificial intelligence (A.I.) to scan websites for potential violations of the ADA quickly. This could allow plaintiffs to pursue hundreds of ADA claims at once, pressuring businesses to settle those claims before they lead to litigation.
What are Automated Tools?
Automated accessibility audits are tools designed to test websites for compliance with ADA guidelines. These tools can scan hundreds of web pages quickly to identify potential violations. Could plaintiffs use these tools to test large numbers of websites for ADA violations? The answer is yes, and here’s how.
Automated tools are efficient at identifying general issues with web accessibility, such as missing alt text for images, incorrect use of headings, or other standard HTML violations. While these tools might not catch every nuance of a site’s accessibility, they can provide a quick overview, potentially leading to web accessibility demand letters.
For more information about automated tools, check out our blog post, Are Web Accessibility Testing Tools Enough to Ensure Compliance.
The Problem with Bots Using Automated Tools
While it is conceivable that a plaintiff could use an automated tool to test websites for ADA violations, there is one major issue. Automated tools have substantial limitations.
Even the best-automated tools are prone to false positives. For example, an automated test could identify missing alt text for images. However, not all images are required to have alt text. Humans often must determine whether alt text is necessary, and A.I. is currently incapable of making those decisions.
Automated tools are a valuable part of thorough accessibility remediation. Their limitations could make them a poor tool for filing massive waves of lawsuits, exposing potential law firms to penalties for filing fraudulent claims.
However, this also brings into question whether a person with no intention to use a business’s products or services can file an ADA non-compliance lawsuit.
The Concept of a “Tester”
There have been instances where individuals, referred to as “testers“, detect ADA violations even when they have no real intention of using a business’s products or services. A prominent example is the case of Acheson Hotels, LLC v. Deborah Laufer, where the legitimacy of the plaintiff’s intent came into question.
The U.S. Supreme Court will likely weigh in on that question in the coming months. Depending on the outcome of that case, the prospect of bots generating demand letters doesn’t seem far-fetched.
But what could this mean for website owners?
What Does This Mean for Website Owners?
For online business owners, the implications are significant. If your website isn’t ADA compliant, the risk isn’t just alienating potential customers but also facing potential litigation. The growing number of demand letters and lawsuits highlights the urgency of making your website accessible to all users, including those with disabilities. However, the question remains: should businesses react to these seemingly “copycat.”
Should You React To These Copycat Claims?
With the specter of potential bot-generated demand letters and ADA lawsuits, website owners are in a precarious position. While it’s crucial not to panic, it’s equally vital to take these claims seriously. Dismissing them offhand could lead to legal complications and considerable costs.
If you receive a web accessibility demand letter:
- Consult an Expert: Before taking any steps, consult a legal expert knowledgeable in ADA compliance and web accessibility.
- Assess Your Website: Use automated and manual audits to gauge your site’s accessibility. Automated tools offer a quick overview, but human evaluations provide in-depth insight.
- Document Everything: Keep a record of all improvements and changes made to ensure accessibility. This will be beneficial in defending your business if faced with litigation.
A New Landscape for Web Accessibility
The fear of bots sending web accessibility demand letters is not unfounded. Automated tools and the emergence of “tester” lawsuits have created a new landscape that online business owners must navigate. The primary concern for businesses should be clear: make your websites accessible. Whether the threat comes from genuine users or automated tools, ensuring compliance is not just a legal necessity but also a testament to a company’s commitment to inclusivity and equality.
Partnering with Experts: 216digital
If you’ve received an ADA demand letter, we’re here to help. Through our years of experience in the trenches analyzing and studying these cases, we can determine how ADA non-compliance lawsuit firms identify their targets and how to protect your business. At 216digital, we will develop a strategy to integrate WCAG 2.1 compliance into your development roadmap on your terms so you can continue focusing on what matters most: running your business.
Scheduling a 15-minute complimentary website audit and consultation with our experts at 216digital.