Real Estate Companies Should Address Website Accessibility to Avoid Lawsuits

ORLANDO, Fla. (November 6, 2016) – The business of real estate has become increasingly digital, and agents and consumers rely on websites to share and find real estate information, market homes and conduct property searches. In fact, according to new data from the National Association of Realtors®, 95 percent of all recent buyers used the internet at some point during the home search process.

For that reason, it’s important that all consumers, including those with disabilities, have equal access to real estate agent and company websites. That’s according to panelists at a session yesterday about website accessibility best practices during the 2016 REALTORS® Conference & Expo.

Alisa Carr, partner at Leech Tishman in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is a litigator and a real estate transaction lawyer and said that while the Americans with Disabilities Act predates widespread use of the internet and courts have been split on the issue, recent court cases have found that a business’s accessibility obligations do extend to its website and mobile applications.

Carr recommended companies familiarize themselves with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 AA posted at www.w3.org, which is a technical standard created by the World Wide Web Consortium to help make sites more accessible.

“It’s a very user-friendly website and a great resource to educate you on how to start to make your sites compliant,” she said. “Make sure your vendors are using these standards and understand that your site needs to be accessible, and not just navigable and pretty. Also, hold your designer to these standards to ensure that the site continues to remain in compliance as content evolves.”

Panelist Mary Brougher, executive vice president for Bender Consulting Services in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a firm that partners with corporations and federal agencies to assist them in achieving their disability-focused diversity and workforce inclusion initiatives, says that 12.6 percent of the U.S. population – or 39 million people - lives with a disability. She said accessible websites allow assistive technology software used by persons with visual, hearing, motor and other disabilities to augment content and make it easier to consume. For example, adding text descriptions with complex graphics, limiting pop-ups and flashing colors, voice-overs that read text aloud, and videos with transcripts.

“The goal is to engage a wider consumer base. It’s smart business to have the widest population of people to come to your website and learn what you do or what products you sell,” said Brougher.

In 2010, the Department of Justice announced it would publish technical standards for website accessibility. No standards have been published, and in 2016 the DOJ announced a delay for development of the standards to sometime in 2018. Carr said that until these guidelines are published, real estate agents and companies are exposing themselves to ligation and shouldn’t make themselves a target by having a website that isn’t compliant.

Brougher recommended these simple steps to help real estate companies begin the steps to reach compliance and potentially avoid future litigation:

  • Assign an executive to be responsible for web site accessibility
  • Develop and execute a digital accessibility training plan
  • Conduct an assessment of websites and applications
  • Document the ongoing status of accessibility efforts
  • Work with third-party vendors to acquire and implement software and features
  • Prioritize any content accessibility violations
  • Continue to assess online sites and tools for compliance

NAR’s legal experts recommend getting out in front of accessibility issues. As a first step, site operators can contact their website provider to inquire about their site’s current accessibility features. A hired technical expert can also help site operators identify where their site might fail to comply. A simple feedback form also makes it easy for users to get in touch about any accessibility issues.

NAR and its members recognize the importance of and are deeply committed to providing access to the real estate listings, information and services they provide to all individuals, including those with disabilities. In a letter to the Department of Justice earlier this year, NAR offered its support for the adoption of clear website accessibility standards and requirements. The letter further urged the agency to expedite its rulemaking on this issue since the lack of clear rules has contributed to a growing number of lawsuits against companies for allegedly violating the ADA because of an “inaccessible” website.

The National Association of Realtors®, “The Voice for Real Estate,” is America’s largest trade association, representing 1.1 million members involved in all aspects of the residential and commercial real estate industries.

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