As ADA lawsuits related to website accessibility climb, pizzerias are put on notice
Don Reddin and his colleagues at Pizza My Heart weren’t taking any chances.
Already interested in improving the accessibility of their 26-unit, California-based pizzeria’s redesigned website, those efforts accelerated and intensified as a lawsuit against Domino’s captured headlines and the attention of the U.S. Supreme Court. A blind man had sued the national pizza chain after he was unable to order food on its website and mobile app despite the use of screen-reading software. Reddin feared the legal repercussions if Pizza My Heart ever encountered a similar lawsuit as well as the potential brand damage such action could inflict, especially given how much Pizza My Heart’s Bay Area clientele prizes inclusivity.
“The Domino’s lawsuit shuffled around our priorities,” says Reddin, Pizza My Heart’s chief marketing officer.
Working with BentoBox, a leading builder of restaurant websites, Pizza My Heart unveiled a commercially viable website that met key accessibility criteria, posted an accessibility statement online and reviewed accessibility with its third-party partners – a multi-tiered effort to improve accessibility and mitigate risk.
“Opening yourself up to this type of legal risk is not something you want to do as a business,” Reddin says. “We weren’t going to sit around and wait.”
ADA in the digital world
While restaurant owners are keenly aware of the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) in respect to a store’s physical environment – wheelchair ramps, handicapped parking spaces and the like – many are only recently recognizing ADA’s place in the digital world as well, largely the result of mounting litigation. Some 2,250 website accessibility lawsuits were filed in 2019, according to BentoBox estimates. That’s approximately one lawsuit every four hours – and a figure accelerating year over year.
“We’re seeing this rise because the website is the first place so many interact with a brand and where so much commerce happens,” explains Shawn Pike, president of User1st, a Washington, D.C.-based company that helps businesses improve web accessibility.
To be certain, the lawsuit alone can be a costly endeavor. BentoBox reports that the average settlement for these lawsuits is approximately $16,000, a figure that includes neither legal fees nor the cost of website accessibility upgrades.
Given how much pizzerias lean on their websites and mobile apps to drive business and the bullseye restaurants naturally wear – only retail operations have endured more website accessibility lawsuits than the hospitality sector – ignoring digital accessibility stands a particularly perilous move.
“You’re talking time, energy and money to respond to a lawsuit, not to mention the brand and [public relations] risk,” Pike says.
Yet more, there are almost certainly consumers who never file a lawsuit, but who simply take their dollars elsewhere upon encountering an unaccommodating restaurant website. Those with visual impairment, motor limitations and the like hold immense buying power and cut across all social groups, Pike reminds.
“User abandonment means lost revenue opportunities. If you’re accessible and inclusive, that can mean business,” Pike says.
Website accessibility and you
While it is difficult for a restaurant to know the full extent of its website’s accessibility without a full manual audit, ownership might employ accessibility firms or a company like User1st to assess risk. User1st, for instance, offers automated scans and hybrid testing to ascertain risk before determining reasonable recourse.
But ownership might perform a few simple checks themselves to gauge immediate risk.
First, visit the pizzeria’s website and begin hitting the tab key. In doing so, a box should appear over different navigation links – location, menu, about us, contact and so on. This mimics how a screen reader picks up the website. If no box appears, it’s a warning that accessibility lags.
“That’s a best first step,” BentoBox channel strategy manager Perry Rahman-Porras says. Another red flag: PDF menus. Rather than a PDF file or uploading an image of the menu, neither of which screen readers can pick up, restaurants should provide text-based menus.
Restaurant owners should also contact their web developer, who should be able to explain and demonstrate the steps taken to address ADA, a federal law.
“Ask them what they did to make the site accessible or what they can do to improve it,” Rahman-Porras says, adding that owners should also talk with third-party partners, such as online ordering, delivery and gift card providers, about their accessibility measures as well. “Do your research and have these conversations early because being reactive can be costly.”
While ADA guidelines for physical environments are rather specific and prescriptive, such clarity lacks on the digital side, an undeniably frustrating piece of this puzzle.
In Domino’s Pizza v. Guillermo Robles, the pizza chain argued that ADA, which was instituted in 1990, does not apply to online platforms and that no clear rules define proper website accessibility. The Supreme Court, however, decided they would not hear the case, thereby leaving an earlier court’s decision in place against Domino’s and putting companies on notice: address website accessibility – or else.
“The risk is growing so companies need to do something,” Pike says.
As the U.S. Department of Justice has not issued any hard-and-fast guidelines regarding website accessibility, most point to the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) as the prevailing standard and most courts have upheld WCAG’s use in accessibility lawsuits.
“WCAG is the Holy Grail playbook for how to do it,” Pike says, though he reminds that “nothing stops anyone from suing anyone.”
An evolving set of guidelines that any credible web developer should grasp, WCAG details ways to make web content more accessible to those with disabilities. This includes providing text alternatives, making all functionality available from a keyboard and ensuring content appears and operates in predictable ways.
“Follow WCAG and there’s a good chance you won’t receive complaints,” says Rahman-Porras, noting that websites on the BentoBox platform exist on certified accessible templates with best WCAG practices inherent in the design.
In addition, restaurant websites should feature an accessibility statement acknowledging efforts to make the website more accessible and sharing contact information for consumers to report issues.
“Show you care and are working toward accessibility,” Rahman-Porras says.
Chicago-based writer Daniel P. Smith has covered business issues and best practices for a variety of trade publications, newspapers, and magazines.