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As ADA Lawsuits Mount, Speech Tech Emerges as Key to Compliance

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Got a business website that’s not accessible or accommodating to the blind or disabled? You might just get sued for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). But if you build the right tools into your site, including speech technology, you could avoid costly litigation and the bad publicity that may accompany it, say the experts.

Per research from Chicago-based law firm Seyfarth Shaw LLP, 2018 could be a record year in terms of ADA lawsuits slapped on businesses—particularly court cases claiming that websites aren’t ADA-compliant. In the first six months of 2018, plaintiffs filed 4,965 ADA Title III lawsuits in federal courts. Of those 4,965 lawsuits, at least 1,054 alleged that inaccessible websites violated the ADA.

Title III of the ADA, put into law in 1990, bans discrimination against the disabled, which include the blind and vision-impaired, in places of public accommodation. “But as originally enacted, the ADA didn’t expressly include websites as places of public accommodation, principally because the internet was in its infancy at the time,” says Lewis Wiener, attorney with Eversheds Sutherland LLP. Today, however, “the internet has become ubiquitous and a greater amount of traditional commerce has shifted online,” he continues. “Hence, courts have, under certain circumstances, interpreted places of public accommodation to include websites, subjecting websites to the ADA’s accessibility requirements.”

Note also that, in 2008, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) published the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, suggesting methods for making content accessible for disabled users. Despite the fact that neither the Department of Justice (DOJ), which is responsible for enforcing the ADA, nor the courts have formally adopted it as the standard for ADA compliance, WCAG 2.0 have been used in court orders and DOJ consent decrees as standards for website remediation.

“The ADA doesn’t require conformance to WCAG 2.0, but many businesses are working to do so as a measure of risk avoidance and because WCAG 2.0 AA standards are generally accepted to be the standard that affords maximum accessibility yet is still attainable,” says Kristina Launey, attorney with Seyfarth Shaw LLP.

“Some states also allow for recovery of actual or statutory damages,” Launey adds. “And if the DOJ were to pursue an enforcement action—which we haven’t seen under the Trump administration—potential penalties are $75,000 for a first violation and $150,000 thereafter.” Which all add up to great reasons why it pays to fix your ADA noncompliant website now, without further delay, believes Sharon Rosenblatt, director of communications for Accessibility Partners LLC in Silver Spring, Maryland. “In my line of work, we see numerous examples of ADA violations,” says Rosenblatt, who herself is disabled. “One example is online chat capabilities. Many users of assistive technology, like a screen reader, cannot use online chat because it’s coded in Flash or not keyboard-accessible.”

And that’s where speech tech can help, says Steve Cook, chief technology officer of AppTek. “A speech-enabled site makes content more accessible and, in some cases, simpler and more intuitive. For example, a shopping site can convert product descriptions into voice-searchable and audible listings,” Cook says. “The trick is designing for flexibility and fidelity.”

The experts suggest you implement robust compatibility with speech recognition software and closed captioning, apps, and readers. Use an automatic speech recognition (ASR) engine that can be incorporated through APIs or be included into your stack. Be sure your ASR and text-to-speech/screen readers are speaker-independent so they can work for all users. “Choose a design that helps you avoid being locked into any one solution,” Cook adds.

Lastly, remember that while these efforts can be costly and time-consuming, “they’re nearly always cheaper than settling a lawsuit,” Rosenblatt says. “They can also pay you back in the form of feel-good corporate social responsibility, positive press, and customer and employee retention.”

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