How Important is Web Accessibility? Just Ask Beyonce

I’ve already written about the importance of web accessibility several times, but there’s no better case study on this topic than the recent class action suit filed in January 2019 against Beyonce Knowles’ company Parkwood Entertainment.

That’s right, folks — even Queen Bey herself has room for improvement. Luckily, web accessibility isn’t hard (just chronically overlooked), so I’m sure it won’t be long until the issues are addressed and Beyonce’s digital presence is flawless once again.

The suit was filed by Mary Connor, a New York woman with visual impairments who claims that Beyonce.com violates the Americans With Disabilities Act because it is “an exclusively visual interface” with numerous accessibility barriers that prevent visually impaired users from browsing or making online purchases without help from sighted individuals.

The accessibility barriers cited in the suit include:

  • A lack of alt text on images that describe content
  • A lack of accessible navigation and drop-down menus
  • An inability to navigate using a keyboard instead of a mouse

Conner’s attorney, Dan Shaked, writes in the complaint: “The one and only form of entertainment that truly presents an even playing field between the visually impaired and the sighted is the joy of music. [Connor] dreams of attending a Beyonce concert and listening to her music in a live setting. However, when she browsed the Beyonce.com website, she encountered numerous barriers which limited her accessibility to the goods and services offered on the website.”

Beyonce isn’t the only one who’s been hit with a web accessibility suit.

Over the past couple of years, there’s been a noticeable spike in lawsuits over the issue of web accessibility.

These cases really started to ramp up in 2017 after a Florida federal judge ruled in a lawsuit that supermarket chain Winn-Dixie’s website was in violation of the ADA for not being properly accessible to visually impaired users. The plaintiff, who is blind and relies on screen reader software to access websites, was unable to use the grocer’s website to download coupons, order prescriptions, or find store locations.

“We need to make every single thing accessible to every single person with a disability.”

— Stevie Wonder

Since that case, the floodgates have opened. More than 800 lawsuits of similar nature were filed in 2017, and hundreds more by the middle of 2018. The lawsuits touch a wide range of industries — from major ecommerce companies to news media outlets, and more. Some of the high-profile companies sued for web accessibility issues over the past 18 months include big brand names like Nike, Amazon, Pandora, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, Burger King, Rolex, and the Hershey Company.

These cases underscore the importance of keeping up with web accessibility from a legal liability perspective.

We’re writing the rules as we go

The dawn of web accessibility standards date back to the mid 1990’s, but if the sudden influx of web accessibility lawsuits over the past couple years is any indication, the perfection of these standards remains very much a “work in progress.”

While ADA Title III is clear about its accessibility requirements for “public accommodations” (meaning businesses and organizations open to the public), it wasn’t until recently that a company’s website presence has been considered as a “public accommodation.” To complicate matters, the ADA’s accessibility rules were primarily written with “brick-and-mortar” facilities in mind so there is no clear verbiage to define what makes a website “accessible.”

As a result, we’re still in the process of establishing legal precedents that govern the interpretation and enforcement of web accessibility. Cases like Beyonce’s (among many others) are literally writing the rules as they go.

The major takeaway is that if you use your website to conduct business (either directly or indirectly, with or without a brick-and-mortar facility), you should be taking web accessibility very seriously. Otherwise, you could be potentially at risk of a lawsuit.

“Ok, I get it. Web accessibility = good! So what do I need to do to make my website is accessible?”

In the absence of clear federal standards as to what constitutes compliance, how do you know if your website meets the necessary requirements?

I recommend following the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) as a standard for web accessibility. Several courts have already acknowledged WCAG as an acceptable standard. When in doubt, it’s best to evaluate your website by these guidelines to ensure it is as accessible as possible.

Descriptive alt image text and accessible site navigation are not just “nice to have” bonus features. In this day and age, web accessibility should be thought of as mandatory for the proper functioning of any digital experience.

Prioritizing web accessibility keeps you safe legally, helps with search engine rankings, and most importantly, ensures that all of your site visitors are able to have a positive user experience.

How accessible is your website?

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Featured Image: hollaa01/Flickr via Wikimedia



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