Recently, I learned that a Dallas-area dentist (whose privacy is being withheld for obvious reasons) was threatened with a federal lawsuit by a military veteran. The veteran charged that the dentist’s website was inaccessible to people with disabilities and in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This has been an expensive endeavor for the dentist; it’s costing him thousands to settle this legal battle and make it go away. The kicker is that he still must make his website accessible. Plus, if the state dental board learns of this pending federal lawsuit, it could compound the repercussions.
A little background: Title III of the ADA provides for people with disabilities to have equal access to buildings, public restrooms, restaurants, and more. Recently, the Department of Justice demonstrated and a federal court has ruled that the law applies directly to the Internet (specifically your dental practice’s website).1 For example, those who are visually impaired have difficulty seeing website images, so the website should include appropriate tags and data that “speaks” what those images look like.
While the ADA does not provide for monetary damages to private parties bringing ADA lawsuits, it allows for “reasonable” attorney fees, which means big money is on the line. The major retailer Target was sued by the National Federation of the Blind and had to settle for millions because of ADA website compliance violations.2 The court substantiated the award by declaring that the “plaintiffs have broken new ground in an important area of law.”2
More recently, the supermarket chain Winn-Dixie was found liable in federal court under Title III of the ADA.3 The trend suggests that dentists and other brick-and-mortar businesses should focus on accessibility efforts now.
What you need to know
I understand that this is frustrating to have to comply with another regulation, and you would really like to push this under the rug. But regardless of what state you practice in, what type of practice you have, or what size of practice you run, right now your website is likely in noncompliance with the ADA, and it needs to be compliant. This can be true even if you hired someone to build your website. Why? Because making a site compliant can cost extra, or it isn’t discussed when designing the site, or the site isn’t kept up to date.
We’ve been fielding phone calls from dentists who report that there are many website firms who are unaware of this situation, and who are in disarray on this topic. We’ve even heard companies telling customers they’re compliant when they’re not, just to save that customer from leaving their company - and subsequently putting that customer (you) at risk. After careful research and direct inquiries, it appears some dental website providers don’t even know what “compliance” is.
At the end of the day, you are not exempt from the law, and failure to take the appropriate action could be extremely expensive and stressful. This is a very real threat, and you need to take this seriously, as this law is not going away. If nothing else, it could get more stringent and specific.
If you don’t have a website that complies 100% with the accessibility standards set forth by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 AA, which puts your site in compliance with the ADA, you are 100% at risk. And just a word of warning: it’s likely a lot cheaper to make your website compliant, because these federal lawsuits are typically settled out of court for large sums - sometimes as high as $70,000, not including legal fees.4
I spoke to Karl Kronenberger, JD, a partner at Kronenberger Rosenfeld LLP. His law firm specializes in Internet law, and has seen this issue come to the forefront in recent years. “Adding an accessibility link to your website is not going to get someone compliant,” he says. In other words, this is a real issue that requires real attention.
My team and I have spent hours tracking the efforts of these attorneys. Unfortunately, we’ve found a pattern of who they go after. They specifically target dentists, because they know dentists’ websites are not compliant with ADA standards. They also know dentists don’t have deep corporate pockets to fight back, so they’ll probably just cave in and settle.
Dental practices are “easy pickings” for these law firms. That means if your practice website is noncompliant with WCAG 2.0 AA accessibility standards (which read like a Harvard law textbook), your practice is wide open and vulnerable to these opportunists’ expensive shakedowns.
There is also a real impact when it comes to your referrals and new patient flow, because this is not “just another regulation” or “just another law” you have to comply with. It also happens to be the right thing to do, especially when it comes to making your website accessible to disabled readers, just like having accessible bathrooms is the right thing to do for your patients.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in five American adults live with a disability,5 which means you have patients right now who are disabled trying to access your noncompliant website, putting you even more at risk.
You must lend a helping hand to these individuals because they want to become devoted patients, and that is why they are visiting your website in the first place. They have teeth just like the rest of us! Without the ability to browse through your website like everyone else, they won’t become patients, and neither will their friends and family - but they may be more likely to report you to the government or hire an attorney.
Having an accessible website actually gives you a competitive advantage. You know that your competition is unlikely to be compliant and unable to properly serve this patient base, which opens up an entirely new opportunity for practice growth and goodwill in your community.
The ADA-compliance issue is not going away, and I strongly urge you let me or someone else help you start addressing this problem now while it’s on your mind.
By: Graig Presti