E-commerce accounts for a larger share of the market every year making websites and digital marketplaces increasingly important to business leaders. Online forums present opportunities, but also create questions when it comes to accessibility. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) predominantly addresses accommodations that must be made for physical locations. However, brick-and-mortar shops are becoming less vital as consumers purchase everything from toothbrushes to cars online.

Gil v. Winn-Dixie is one decision that made headlines again recently as it explores what ADA accommodations companies must provide on their websites. For many businesses, the results of the appellate court decision only lead to more uncertainty but are worth exploring.

Unanswered Questions: The Gil v. Winn-Dixie Appellate Decision

Gil began when a consumer attempted to learn about products on Winn-Dixie’s website. The customer, Juan Carlos Gil, has vision impairment and learned that the website failed to offer screen reader technology. Individuals without vision loss could order prescriptions online and obtain coupons to save on their grocery store and pharmacy purchases, while Gil could not.

Gil brought a case against Winn-Dixie, alleging that the company’s lack of screen reader tech violates the ADA by failing to provide vision-impaired customers the same shopping experience as sighted customers. The district court agreed with Gil that the website, which integrates with the store’s in-person shopping, violates the ADA. Winn-Dixie filed an appeal.

Then, the Appellate Court of the Eleventh Circuit overturned the district court’s decision and found in favor of the defendant. According to the majority, the website is not a place of public accommodation based on the ADA language.

Business leaders looking to avoid lawsuits and provide better support for their customers and consumers should review the ADA and its twelve covered categories. These include:

-Lodgings
-Establishments that serve food (restaurants and bars etc.)
-Places of entertainment (theaters etc.)
-Public gathering locations
-Sales and rental establishments
-Service establishments (bank, dry cleaners, etc.)
-Public transit stations, terminals, and depots
-Public displays and collections (museums, galleries, etc.)
-Places of recreation (parks, zoos, etc.)
-Places of education
-Social service center locations (food pantries, senior centers, etc.)
-Places of recreation and exercise (Gyms, bowling alleys, etc.)

The opinion reasons that customers could only use Winn-Dixie’s website to place prescription orders or search for coupons. Consumers still must visit the physical store to make any purchases.

A dissenting opinion argues that the law does not just require that sighted customers can access the store and services, but that it prohibits policies that treat disabled consumers less favorably than others.

State Differences Put Organizations at Risk

Existing nuances leave business leaders without clear answers about their obligation to ensure that their websites and applications to adhere to the ADA. Gil is not the first appellate case to address the ADA’s requirement to provide web-related accommodations for individuals with visual impairments.

The Ninth Circuit came to a different conclusion than the Eleventh Circuit. In Robles v. Domino’s Pizza, the court stated that the lack of accommodations in the pizza chain’s website and app violates the ADA. Similar to Gil, the plaintiff in Robles is visually impaired, and the website and app lacked the technology that would allow him to benefit from screen reading features.

According to the Ninth Circuit, the ADA applies to services “of” any business, non-profit or other organization included in the twelve ADA categories rather than “in” those locations. The Eleventh Circuit attempted to distinguish Robles from Gil by pointing out that Dominos offered the opportunity to make purchases on its website and app while Winn-Dixie did not.

The fact that websites offer services nationally rather than in only one state further complicates the situation. Online businesses may meet the requirements in many states, but risk litigation and violations in other jurisdictions.

How to Protect Your Organization and Comply with the ADA

Organizations need to take a proactive approach to understand ADA requirements. Reviewing standards that groups such as the Web Accessibility Initiative promote can help businesses and other institutions appreciate the international standards for website accessibility. By following the evolving trends related to accessibility, companies can better meet the needs of their customers while avoiding possible violations.

Companies should also enlist policies to continuously educate employees who post on their websites regarding accessibility needs. Businesses can offer contact information for anyone with accessibility-related queries to promote an open dialogue with consumers about matters that might not be readily apparent without customer input.

Reasons to Improve Accessibility Regardless of the ADA

Adherence to the ADA is not simply a matter of avoiding litigation. Accessible websites and products can serve a broader range of consumers and improve the bottom line as a result. Businesses that fail to provide access to meet all of their customers’ needs will lose out.

The free market will gravitate toward more client-friendly products, and accessible products and services will prove superior to those of exclusive competitors. Additionally, defending against a violation of the ADA is not just expensive, but can damage a business’s image. Businesses that take steps to provide all-access accommodation will fare better in the public eye than those who refuse to change until they face threats or legal consequences.

The takeaway

The outcome of Gil only muddies the waters when it comes to websites and the ADA. Avoiding ADA violations is essential for any organization, but the better approach is to consider a proactive effort to offer services and products to people of all abilities.

Technology now presents many solutions to incorporate on your website, marketing materials, video content and more to help the visually impaired, hard of hearing and those living with other physical and intellectual disabilities. As technological features continue to improve the lives of Americans, businesses can benefit from embracing new, accommodating products and attracting a wider pool of clients.