With the ongoing national Covid-19 crisis, real estate brokers, agents, and property managers are more reliant than ever on the internet as a means of marketing and communication. Websites remain a critical marketing tool for most real estate professionals.
ADA (“Americans With Disabilities Act”) website compliance is essential for all businesses, including your real estate business. The total number of ADA website accessibility cases that have been filed nationally have gone from a couple hundred in 2016 to over 2,000 in 2019, and are expected to increase.
By way of background, the ADA was signed into law in 1990. That Act makes it unlawful to discriminate against people with disabilities. The Act has five sections or “Titles” which apply to various public services, public accommodations, private entities, and telecommunications. Title III of the ADA prohibits companies that own, lease to, or operate a place of public accommodation from discriminating against persons with disabilities. Businesses covered under Title III include restaurants, hotels, professional offices such as attorneys and CPAs, and sales establishments, which do include real estate offices. Further, if a real estate broker or agent has a home office in which business is conducted with members of the public, that portion of the real estate professional’s home must also be ADA compliant.
The challenges businesses face when it comes to websites is that when the ADA was enacted in 1990, the internet was in its infancy and Congress did not anticipate the role that the internet would play in everyone’s lives in the 21st century. Instead, the focus of the law was on discrimination that occurred in person, and the barriers that needed to be removed in order to accommodate the disabled, such as installing ramps, repositioning telephones, adding markers on elevator control buttons, etc.
Large retailers are by far the biggest target for ADA website compliance lawsuits. Next in line are restaurant chains. However, if an individual with disabilities visits a real estate professional’s website and is unable to access certain features, the real estate professional or property manager can be faced with a lawsuit for violation of the ADA.
A typical ADA lawsuit is focused on an inability to purchase a product or sign up for a service, rather than simply seeking information. But certain aspects of the real estate industry, such as being able to view real estate listings, or use an online portal to pay rent or access contracts or other documents, are the key areas where accessibility must be addressed. Otherwise, a real estate website could be interpreted as being discriminatory and not accessible and the real estate professional can face potential liability.
As most laypersons are not technically savvy when it comes to website design, there are resources available to assist in reducing the risk of a business becoming a target for plaintiffs’ lawyers on the lookout for non-compliant websites. A 1998 law required Federal Agencies to maintain sites that are accessible to all. To assist compliance, the General Services Administration (GSA) developed a website with tools that non-governmental businesses may use as well. It is located at Section508.gov: https://www.section508.gov/. Another excellent resource can be found at W3C (World Wide Web Consortium): https://www.w3.org/WAI/standards-guidelines/wcag/.
The first step real estate professionals can take is to contact your website provider to determine what can be done to create or improve accessibility. If you or your real estate company operate your own website, and you lack the technical expertise in-house, there are many experts who specialize in creating websites.
If you have a WordPress site, there are ADA plug-ins you can load to help identify needed improvements.
As internet technology continues to grow as a key and significant factor in how business is conducted in the real estate industry, remaining pro-active in our evolving legal environment is an essential risk management strategy.
Contributing Attorney James R. Myers, Esq. Chartwell Law 12486 Brantley Commons Court Fort Myers, FL 33907
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