What happens when you get sued for your inaccessible website
In the United States, the primary motivator for paying attention to accessibility seems to be risk avoidance. While I’d personally rather see people work to make their ICT systems more accessible because they believe in Universal Usability, litigation (or threats thereof) is what truly gets the discussion (and budget) moving for accessibility. Some argue that its the only way to get things done and they’re quick to point out recent accessibility lawsuit settlements and new “collaborations” between companies and disability rights organizations. Throughout my career, I’ve dealt with a large number of companies who are or have been sued. I’ve done work for plaintiffs and defendants and when you hear the back stories of how these lawsuits happened, each one tends to have the same characteristic history for how they got there. To say accessibility lawsuits are preventable is an understatement. By the time a story about an accessibility lawsuit reaches the media, a whole lot of behind-closed-door meetings and phone calls between both parties have failed to come up with a mutually agreeable resolution. This lack of resolution ultimately turns into a lawsuit.
How to deal with threat of a lawsuit
While each story is unique – and I’m not about to disclose details – most of the cases I’m personally aware of involve a series of silly missteps and failures to take the situation seriously. The plaintiff’s lawyers didn’t just pick the defendant’s name out of a hat. The most active lawyers in this type of action do their homework first and have gathered hard evidence that disabled users’ needs have gone unmet and their complaints to the defendant have not gotten results. In other words, your website didn’t get you sued, your inaction did.
But it isn’t just your inaction that got you here. Your organizational culture and lack of quality processes contributed heavily. This is probably the single universal trait among all organizations that have been sued for accessibility, and it can often be traced up to the C-level executives. Ignorance around accessibility is one thing, but your culture is probably more broken than that. Chances are your organization’s approach to quality, usability, and project/ program management are broken as well. You can probably even verify this by having conversations with your Human Resources personnel, as you’ve likely lost employees due to their frustration at the company’s lack of process.
Ultimately, you are going to end up fixing your website
It is never too early to begin addressing accessibility. Being proactive is far better than being reactive and that’s never more true than when you’re dealing with a legal threat. When it comes time to address these matters in the written settlement, the terms will call for WCAG 2.0 Level AA as the standard of measure for success. Get started on that now, not when the settlement is signed because the settlement will also dictate a date for you to reach that goal.
To paraphrase my former co-worker Elle Waters: “Do you want to do this on your budget and timeline or the plaintiff’s budget and timeline?” This is extremely important. If you wait too long to address this it will be expensive, painful, and extremely disruptive to all other work. Do it now.
You will never be successful in accessibility without fixing your culture and processes
Getting to the settlement is one thing but then you have to meet its requirements. If it is your culture that got you here it’ll be the culture that keeps you from being successful. Chances are, you’ll be told to get an accessibility audit and to fix the things found during the audit. Your settlement will probably also call for requirements that you get your staff trained in accessibility. That’s only the beginning. Broken processes have lead to very serious roadblocks to meeting settlement requirements. In fact, a well-crafted search on Google will turn up one organization that has been sued 9 times for accessibility. Poor program management, poor leadership, and poor processes will mean that accessibility suffers alongside other quality domains.
Chances are there’s nothing in this blog post you haven’t already heard before
At almost every client I’ve had, there’s been at least one person inside the company – either through passion or because it was their job role – advocating for accessibility. That internal person has been saying the same things I’ve said above and elsewhere on this blog for years and haven’t gotten any traction. Suddenly you get sued and I show up to do training and I’m saying what they’ve been saying all this time.
Start paying attention to this person because if not, they’ll eventually get angry about being ignored and quit to work for an accessibility consulting firm. In fact, that’s where a lot of accessibility consultants come from.