Many small and medium-sized businesses in Colorado have struggled to stay solvent this year. Some in the restaurant and hospitality industries have had to adjust to taking most of their orders online. The owners of these businesses expected trouble in this transition, but many of them did not expect to be hit with disability discrimination lawsuits over their websites.

According to the owners of a Colorado winery, dozens of businesses in the state have been hit with nearly identical lawsuits from an out-of-state law firm that claims to represent a disabled client. They say their client, who is blind, cannot access the business’ websites.

The ADA and public accommodations

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, or ADA, prohibits public accommodations from discriminating against customers on the basis of disability. Customers who say they have been denied access to a place of public accommodation due to disability discrimination may file a claim under the ADA.

Federal and Colorado agencies provide reasonably clear guidelines for brick-and-mortar businesses so that they can provide access to customers who have disabilities. For example, businesses may have to provide ramps for people in wheelchairs.

The ADA and the Web

However, business owners say the guidelines for online businesses are not so clear. The organization Web Accessibility Initiative has published guidelines for making websites accessible to people with disabilities, but these do not have the force of law behind them. Business owners say there are no binding laws or regulations that tell them how to provide reasonable access to visually impaired web users.

In a time of severe economic stress, an lawsuit can deal a crushing blow to a small business. It’s important for business owners and managers to seek out help from skilled business attorneys to know how to comply with applicable laws, protect their companies from liability, resolve disputes when and if they arise, and help their businesses to thrive.