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Online Accessibility for Housing Dives Deeper than ADA

Apr 13, 2020 2:26:00 PM

By Walter Arnold, COO
You have just learned of a lawsuit filed against your company for several violations about something you never anticipated would be an issue – the design of your website.

The suit alleges federal and state discrimination violations and seeks statutory damages, compensatory damages, punitive damages, and attorneys’ fees.  It cites several laws being violated such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Fair Housing Act, and state discrimination and tort laws. This exact situation has already happened to four rental communities this year.  

And in the current environment of social distancing where many people with disabilities need digital media to obtain information and conduct transactions, this legal environment could get even more challenging.  There are an increasing number of federal and state laws and court cases that require a company’s customer-facing websites, mobile applications, and other digital assets to be accessible to individuals with disabilities.  Compliance in this legal environment means developing and modifying website, app elements, and content in a manner that can be used and understood by individuals with visual, hearing, and cognitive impairments.

While Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) lawsuits concerning digital accessibility have gained prominence over the past few years, the exponential increase of virtual housing searches and online rental and mortgage applications may have additional implications under the Fair Housing Act (FHA).  Under the FHA, people with disabilities may request reasonable accommodations and modifications in buying or renting a home, taking out a mortgage, seeking housing assistance, or engaging in other housing-related transactions. As you know, it is illegal for landlords, property managers, lenders and others to discriminate on the basis of someone’s disability and since the law seeks “reasonable accommodations” for home buying and renting activities, this could most certainly apply to your website and other online assets.

Adding further to this possible litigation web are state laws and regulations like California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act and the most recently proposed regulatory changes to the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA).  Businesses that are subject to the CCPA may soon be required to make their online privacy notices and other online forms subject to the CCPA “reasonably accessible to consumers” pursuant to industry standards “such as” the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), version 2.1.  And if your website or app isn’t accessible to even get to these documents, you may have more of an issue.  The proposed CCPA rules are not yet finalized and we don’t anticipate the final CCPA rules being issued for a few months. Other states may have their own laws which could impact your business, so I encourage you to work with your legal counsel, compliance personnel, or other applicable team members to be as informed as possible on potential laws and regulations concerning disability discrimination in addition to the ADA.

As the housing industry has become more technologically advanced, the way people look for and purchase homes has dramatically shifted online.  Looking for homes - rented or owned, applying for loans, and paying mortgages demand a high level of connectivity.  In March when interest rates fell to record lows responding to market pressures from the coronavirus crisis, mortgage applications soared 55% and refinances grew 76.5%.  With many application and refinance services offered online, if your digital assets are not accessible to persons with disabilities your company may be at legal and reputational risk.    

“Diversity and inclusion” have become the buzz words of many industries.  Unfortunately, these efforts often forget persons with disabilities who transcend across all demographics. According to the American Institutes for Research, there are 64 million people in the U.S. living with a disability, of which 22 million are of prime working age (16-64 years old).  Millennials are of prime home-buying age and approximately 33% of them have a disability.

Digital accessibility ensures you reach the broadest, most diverse set of customers, provides those customers with the services they need, protects your organization’s reputation, improves the home search and buying experience, and reduces your risk of litigation. 

So, what can your organization do and where should you start to improve your digital accessibility?  Add an accessibility statement to your website which communicates your company’s commitment to an accessible customer experience. Develop a compliance program to ensure that all future digital assets are developed for accessibility.  Work with a third party to determine the current state of accessibility for your digital assets. Finally, work with your internal development teams and your vendor to ensure your future digital assets are accessible. 

Of note, there is an internationally recognized standard for creating digitally accessible content – the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). This framework offers companies a strong foundation for delivering digital accessibility.

Technology has revolutionized the way we look for and purchase housing today.  Unfortunately, it may be leaving some customers behind and excluding a community who needs easy access for finding a home. Caring for customers through digital accessibility demonstrates an organization’s willingness to go beyond compliance and truly serve all your customers and communities.  

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Walter Arnold is a 30-year veteran of the financial services technology industry with experience in acquisition planning and implementation, delivery channel design and execution, ATM operations, distributed systems management, compliance, and vendor management.  Walt came to User1st from HTx Services, LLC, where he provided executive leadership for $55MM IT Infrastructure and ATM service provider.  He also held several leadership positions at Citibank North America with a focus on technology services.

About User1st:
Founded with the purpose of making the power of the internet accessible for persons with varied and changing abilities, User1st provides the most advanced web accessibility solutions on the market for testing, remediation, monitoring, and compliance. User1st’s solutions are deployed in a variety of industries worldwide, including financial services, retail, government, education, and healthcare. For more information, visit http://www.user1st.com/ and follow User1st on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter @User1st.

For More Information Contact:
Raegan Bartlo, VP Communications

Written by Raegan Bartlo