Serving up property details, transportation data and local amenities, real estate websites contain a wealth of information especially helpful to the visually impaired.
Ironically, the potential for these sites to make life easier for the blind may have put a target on the backs of real estate companies.
A complaint filed against Walk Score — the neighborhood site owned by high-tech brokerage Redfin — underscores this risk, validating recent warnings from the National Association of Realtors (NAR). The suit may mark the first shot in a salvo of anti-discrimination litigation headed for real estate companies.
ADA compliance in the digital age
The case, which seeks class-action status and was filed in a New York district court, accuses Walk Score of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by allegedly operating a website that isn’t accessible to blind people. Redfin, which emphasizes a progressive company culture, declined to comment on the case.
The action is one of hundreds that has been filed against businesses in the last few years. It claims that walkscore.com “contains access barriers that make it difficult, if not impossible, for blind customers to use the website,” allegedly putting Walk Score in violation of basic equal access requirements under both state and federal law.
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) plans to release guidelines for how websites can comply with the ADA in 2018. But it’s already taken the position “that the obligation to have an accessible website presently exists,” said Russ Cofano, general counsel at cloud-based brokerage eXp Realty.
The DOJ, advocacy groups and private plaintiffs are all increasingly pursuing enforcement actions, demands and lawsuits related to website accessibility, he added.
Agents and brokers at risk
NAR has said that both real estate agents and businesses can face liability over inaccessible websites. The trade group was not aware of any other real estate-related cases involving ADA-related website accessibility — though one member of the Northern Nevada Regional MLS has filed a charge of disability discrimination over website accessibility.
A recent ruling on a case involving Dominos Pizza may have temporarily eased pressure on companies to make their websites more accessible. The ruling concluded that because the DOJ hasn’t established clear guidelines, businesses shouldn’t be liable for inaccessible sites. But the case has been appealed, and sooner or later the DOJ will impose ADA website standards.
NAR Chief Technology Officer Mark Lesswing has previously said that accessible websites are generally compatible with browser or assistive technologies, such as screen readers or enlargers and responsive to all controls (mouse, keyboard or assistive device).
Issues cited often relate to menu navigation, clicking and images, he said. The “alt tag” of images, for example, should include descriptions “with some particularity,” NAR has said.
The Dominos Pizza case also suggests that businesses may be able to satisfy ADA obligations by providing disabled users with an alternative form of communication on their site, such as a phone number, NAR said.
“Many members have already implemented NAR’s advice to post an accessibility message on their sites that directs consumers to an alternative means of communicating with the website operator,” said NAR General Counsel Katie Johnson. “This opinion bolsters NAR’S efforts to reduce members’ risk in that regard.
The value of Walk Score
The Walk Score complaint asks a judge to order the company to make its website accessible and seeks “compensatory damages to compensate class members for having been subjected to unlawful discrimination.”
Walk Score “is especially helpful for blind and visually impaired individuals whom have a difficult time accessing transportation,” the complaint said. “However, unless Defendant remedies the numerous access barriers on the website, Plaintiff and Class members will continue to be unable to independently navigate, browse, use and complete a transaction on Walkscore.com.”
There are over eight million people in the U.S. who are visually impaired, including two million who are blind, according to the complaint.
Redfin’s commitment to anti-discrimination
Walk Score may seem like an unlikely defendant in a discrimination suit, as both Walk Score, and its owner, Redfin, have long emphasized a commitment to fighting discrimination.
CEO Glenn Kelman has publicized a drive to increase employee diversity at Redfin while the brokerage has released numerous studies highlighting adverse housing conditions for minorities.
Redfin may have even tailored its website to discourage housing discrimination, having previously suggested that it withholds display of crime or demographic information out of sensitivity to fair housing rules.
Such data appears on a range of other real estate sites, reflecting some legal uncertainty over how real estate sites can violate fair housing laws.