Like most businesses today, wineries are grappling with making their websites accessible to users with disabilities. Plaintiffs and their attorneys continue to target the wine industry and have now filed dozens of lawsuits alleging that growers, distillers, distributors, and merchants are non-compliant under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). If the current litigation wave follows that of other verticals recently hit – retail apparel, hospitality, restaurants, travel, among others – the trend will likely persist until every player in the space has either revamped its existing website, built an entirely new one, or closed its doors altogether.
So how have wineries and vineyards fared so far in facing this new risk? While the final chapter in this story has yet to be written, defendants in such suits across similar retail-based industries have found that their outcomes largely depend on the strategy they choose to adopt. There are three basic approaches. One option is to do nothing at all and hope for the best.
A second option is to take some incremental step or steps toward improving the website. Often, this involves fixing the easy-to-find compliance failures – issues like color contrast violations and missing alterative (“alt”) text on images. The advantages here are convenience and cost; many software tools can assist with this, and for not much money. The primary disadvantage is that the results are mixed, since no technology can catch every failure. In fact, most automated tools only detect about 20-30% of the non-compliant issues. As a result, while software offers a step toward ADA compliance, it will continue to leave website owners exposed and vulnerable. And given that “copycat” suits are now the norm, your odds of escaping further litigation are low.
The third option is for wineries to make their websites ADA compliant. The only way to do this is through human expert auditing that involves actual people going through the site manually to check for all 78 “success criteria” under the current web content accessibility guidelines (WCAG 2.1). After that, wineries can use the audit reports to remediate their sites and achieve meaningful compliance. While this option costs more, it remains the only reliable way to stop successive suits. It is also the right thing to do.
Widgets: Savior or Snake Oil?
Many businesses – not just wineries – turn to third-party accessibility “widgets” as an apparent cure-all. These software plugins or overlays go directly on a website and claim to provide disabled visitors with an expanded set of accessibility tools to help them better navigate the site. To the uninitiated, widgets seem to be the long-sought solution: an inexpensive and easy-to-use button that makes fonts bigger, contrasts sharper, and other enhancements. Their simple integration with any website accounts for their widespread adoption.
Unfortunately, as lots of their former advocates have found, widgets fail to make any website. In fact, there is reason to believe they make sites less compliant than before and more susceptible to litigation. The reason: the features they offer are already available to users via their browsers, their operating systems, or their assistive devices such as electronic screen readers (JAWS and NVDA are the two most popular). Most users who would benefit from a widget’s functionality already have these options available and are using them when needed. So instead of providing new ways to access information, widgets only succeed in further confusing assistive devices, which now have yet another potential barrier on the website to try to “read” and “understand.”
Some experts have been vocal in their opposition to widgets as a quick-fix tool. Jeanne Spellman, a 19-year veteran of web accessibility, represents the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the group that creates the WCAG guidelines. When asked about the rise of widgets, Ms. Spellman referred to them as “snake oil” and noted their likelihood of exacerbating a website’s accessibility hurdles. “Installing plugins that provide text-to-speech or screen magnification,” she writes, “does not help people who are blind or low-vision, because these inferior plugins interfere with real assistive technology the blind or low-vision person already owns and uses.”
Fair enough. But what about the benefit of widgets as a risk-mitigation tool? Is there not some advantage that website owners derive from prominently displaying this software on their site? To this, Ms. Spellman offers a definitive no: “Plugins do not help you if you are sued. Additionally, installing a custom overlay over your code … requires changing the custom overlay every time you make a change to your site. In the end, you still have an inaccessible site.” In the end, the only use Ms. Spellman sees for widgets is as a temporary patch while business owners fix their sites.
Take Action Now
In the short term, what should wineries to do in order to minimize their risk of costly litigation? Here are some steps that make for a good start:
- Hire a true expert in website accessibility. There are many new players in the digital accessibility world, many of whom come from other businesses like web design or marketing. They may be experts in their core business, but they’re not web accessibility specialists. Don’t let them learn on your dime.
- Post an accessibility statement. This can be simple verbiage on your site that lets visitors know you are addressing the issues. It also lists your contact info so that users can reach you if they need help navigating the site. Nearly every lawsuit filed in his space cites the lack of such a statement on the site.
- Perform human audits. Again, technology does have some benefit for those looking to gauge their general accessibility level. But it will not make your website compliant. If true accessibility is the goal, you must have human beings auditing your website for all instances of all WCAG errors.
- Commit to ongoing auditing and maintenance. Post-remediation, you’ll need to periodically review your site to make sure it stays compliant. Your content may change, as do laws and regulations, and so a set-it-and-forget-it strategy can land you back in court. Accessibility is a journey, not a destination.
Lastly, remember that website accessibility is about more than merely avoiding lawsuits; it’s about doing what is lawful and making your website accessible to all, which ultimately benefits everyone, including your winery.