In today’s digital world, web design plays an essential role in the internet experience. According to Forbes, 38% of internet users will stop interacting with a website if its layout is unattractive. When pages don’t load quickly enough, we abandon them within a matter of seconds. And if the content is irrelevant, unhelpful, or sparse, we’ll head back to the search results and try again. But many of us take our ability to visually assess the features of these sites for granted. There are plenty of visually impaired web users who rely on coding queues to understand the information provided by websites all over the globe. And when one of the most well-known tech companies ignores the needs of those users, they’re going to be held legally responsible.
Around 10% of the world’s population — an estimated 650 million people — live with a disability. According to the World Health Organization, around 253 million people live with some sort of visual impairment; approximately 36 million are blind, while 217 million have moderate to severe vision impairment. The National Federation of the Blind estimates that there are approximately 7.3 million people in the U.S. over the age of 16 who have a visual disability. In the United States, there are pieces of legislation that protect these individuals — namely, the American Disabilities Act — from unequal treatment in many areas. In addition, a web standards organization called W3C published Web Content Accessibility Guidelines in 2008, which provide recommendations and rules for websites to ensure those who are visually impaired can access websites.
That’s important to maintain equality for all internet users. Although 83% of all human learning occurs visually, it’s essential for websites to ensure their content is in some way accessible and understandable to those with impairments who cannot rely on sight or sound. Now, one woman has alleged that Apple — one of the foremost innovators in the technological realm — has failed to provide the means for visually impaired web users to understand their website.
Although Apple has actually dedicated several of their webpages to “accessibility support” for their actual products, plaintiff Himelda Mendez has filed a lawsuit against Apple for its alleged violation of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Mendez claims that Apple’s website actually lacks the alt-text attributes in its coding that will allow screen readers to decipher and convey the description of images and other information. Screen reading software can either translate information into a Braille display or can read information aloud; in order to function properly, websites have to be constructed in certain ways that allow the contents to be read by these readers.
The suit explains that Apple.com’s webpages contain empty links with no text and redundant links, both of which are nearly impossible for screen readers to understand. Linked images also contain no alt-text tags, which means that screen readers cannot inform visually impaired web users about the links’ functions. When Mendez visited the Apple website, she encountered various access barriers that prohibited her from accessing the product and services that are offered to the public-at-large, including product purchasing and service appointments.
“For screen-reading software to function, the information on a website must be capable of being rendered into text,” says the complaint. “If the website content is not capable of being rendered into text, the blind or visually-impaired user is unable to access the same content available to sighted users.”
The suit provides a laundry list of issues that must be remedied in order to comply with the ADA and demands that a permanent injunction that would require Apple to hire a consultant to help the company comply with accessibility guidelines, as well as web developer training and compliance testing. The suit also seeks “compensatory damages” and legal fees incurred by Mendez.
This is not the first time Mendez has sued an organization for an inaccessible site. In August, she sued Brooklyn Brewery — along with 24 other businesses — for similar issues. Last year, there were 355 accessibility suits filed against New York State websites by various plaintiffs.
While some may see these as “drive-by lawsuits,” their growing popularity highlights the importance of compliance. Although most would hope that website compliance would be followed out of a duty to the American people, the fear of legal action might be just as powerful a reason (if not more so) for businesses to make their websites completely accessible for all users.