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Don’t Have an ADA Compliant Website?

In this edition of The Wired Practice video for MedPage Today, Vanguard CEO Ron Harman King discusses the phenomenon of drive-by lawsuits adapted to ADA website compliance.
Watch the video on MedPage Today

By Ron Harman King, MS, JD, CEO

If your practice doesn’t have an ADA compliant website, you may be the next drive-by lawsuit target

Video transcript

Does anybody remember the Yellow Pages? You know, those bookshelf-breaking phone directories that once inhabited just about every kitchen pantry?

The Yellow Pages are still around but are mainly digital these days. Taking their place, of course, are websites. From donuts to doctors, consumers everywhere today depend on search engines and websites for information about what to buy, what to eat, what to wear, who to date – and, obviously, where and from whom to seek healthcare.

In my experience, physicians were among the last professionals to shift from Yellow Pages advertisements to website publishing. However, especially for providers in private practice, websites have become nearly as essential as exam rooms.

In total, the number of websites worldwide is approaching two billion. That’s one website for every four humans inhabiting our planet. Their ubiquity has created a whole new industry in the last two decades.

But website developers and online advertisers are not the only ones benefiting from the digital age. Some lawyers have also discovered the internet to be an extraordinarily efficient means of generating business.

ADA drive-by lawsuits

In this theme, it’s time to say hello to a new form of litigation traditionally called drive-by lawsuits. When the U.S. Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, millions cheered the dawn of a new age. These were people who found their way blocked into buildings by a lack of wheelchair access or other impediments discriminating against individuals with a range of disabilities, from vision impairment to HIV to autism.

The most visible sign of the ADA’s effects is the blue-painted handicap parking spaces in public parking lots and parking decks coast to coast. The ADA legally mandates the spaces. If a business doesn’t provide fully ADA-compliant parking, in some states that have passed similar laws, you don’t even have to be a customer to sue the business.

That means, for example, if a handicapped parking space is a few inches too narrow or if the blue handicapped-parking sign is in the wrong place, in those states a lawyer can sue and collect cash payments plus attorney’s fees. In some locations, a successful plaintiff doesn’t have to offer a grace period for a business owner to fix the problem.

Why are they called “drive-by” lawsuits? Because a plaintiff – or a plaintiff’s lawyer – need only randomly drive by businesses in the hunt for ADA violations. They don’t have to even enter the business. Sometimes a tape measure is all that’s required to launch litigation.

Consequently, one law firm reports that ADA lawsuits have tripled in just four years, with New York, Florida and California accounting for the lion’s share.

Our ADA compliant healthcare – and law firm – marketing

Vanguard Communications has helped our medical practice clients bring their websites up to ADA compliance. Now we’re also offering legal practice marketing. Interested in learning how our MedMarketLink or LawMarketLink programs can help your practice in ADA website compliance or in its overall marketing outreach?

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Rise of the click-by lawsuit for medical websites

Now comes a new version of drive-by lawsuits. You might call them click-by lawsuits. Enterprising plaintiffs and their lawyers have latched onto the convenience of Google, which allows them to identify ADA violations from afar. Voila. A desk chair has replaced a driver’s seat.

Using Google Earth to spot ADA violations

First, lawyers discovered that the use of Google Earth on their computers could help them find not only ADA parking violations but also aerial photos of hotel swimming pools lacking compliant lifts that help people with physical disabilities get in and out of the water. Then it was only a matter of time before they realized that the Google search engine could also locate websites not easily legible to individuals with impaired sight or audible to those who are hearing impaired.

Before long, website owners and publishers – including healthcare providers – began receiving lawyer letters threatening ADA lawsuits. According to one accounting, more than two-thousand website-related ADA suits are filed annually.

The rise in suits raises the question of who should be worried about becoming a defendant. Here’s where it gets sticky. The U.S. Department of Justice, the principal federal agency enforcing the ADA, has not updated the regulations in more than a decade. The word “website” appears only three times in the text, mostly in reference to the department’s website. Accordingly, consensus within the legal and information technology communities is that while subsequent official publications say the ADA applies to government websites, the federal law and some similar state laws are largely silent on whether non-governmental websites must comply.

In my research I’ve found courts to be divided over state accessibility laws and have seen no indication that the Justice Department will begin enforcing the law against private websites. And if they do, what standards will they apply?

To be sure, one set of standards comes from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), a nonprofit international organization that sets technical guidelines for website publishing worldwide. To address website accessibility, the W3C has promulgated the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), a fairly exhaustive set of recommendations aimed principally at assisting website visitors with sight and hearing disabilities.

Converting to an ADA compliant website can be costly

The problem is, implementing such a comprehensive remedy can be costly for small businesses and medical practices, as well as for large businesses with websites containing hundreds or thousands of pages. This leaves most website publishers with only two practical choices: Wait for a lawyer’s letter to appear in the mailbox or install special website software available through a monthly subscription.

A variety of software subscriptions is available for increasing website accessibility, typically for a monthly fee ranging from $50 to $100. The software allows a visitor to click on an icon on the site and open a window to view a number of selections for adjusting font size and color and having the text read aloud by a robot, among other conveniences.

Software for medical website ADA compliance

The software packages are not as robust as the implementation of the WCAG. But for many website publishers – notably private medical practices – they can significantly improve website access to the disabled, as well as provide a hedge against unwanted lawyer attention for an affordable price.

Of course, a website developer must install the software, but it’s usually an easier, comparatively lower-cost task. In quite a twist of fate, the best way I know to shop and select the software is through Google. Type the words “ADA website compliant software” into Google or another search engine, and you should find reviews and vendors galore. Ironically, the cause of the disease thus becomes the cure.

It’s unfortunate that the cyberworld has hatched so many nefarious schemes, from hackers to phishers to less-than-scrupulous legal beagles. As the novelist Mario Puzo once observed, “A lawyer with a briefcase can steal more than a thousand men with guns.” Fortunately, that applies only to a tiny percentage of attorneys.

As for me, I would never go back to the Yellow Pages days. The internet has been instrumental in obtaining just about everything of value I have sought, including advanced academic degrees, a spouse and a handful of treasured healthcare providers. For that, I am thrilled to be living in the digital age.

Better practice management

Vanguard Communications built its reputation on medical marketing and practice management improvement. We can help you improve your operations with our MedAmorphosis healthcare consulting and process improvement program.

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