California Pays 66 Million Dollars for an Inaccessible Website. Lawsuit Follows

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This post is about a lawsuit filed in California. California paid 66 million dollars for a website. The website lets people reserve camp sites and has other information. The website was supposed to work for everyone, but it does not work for disabled people. The lawsuit is trying to fix the website. It is also trying to get the 66 million dollars back for California. Technology should always be tested to make sure it works for people with disabilities. Disabled people need to check out websites before they are on the web. You can read more about this lawsuit in a press release the lawyer wrote.

Article updated

This article has been updated since it was first published on July 21, 2019. The most recent update was added on March 21, 2023. Read the updates for this article.

pile of fifty dollar bills (US)

[November 15, 2019 Update: The company that delivered the 66 million dollar website (described in this post) to the State of California tried to get the case thrown out of court. The judge said no. Read an article about the judge’s Order. Read the judge’s Order in the case.]

[Start of original post] Imagine this: Two companies charge the State of California sixty six million dollars to build a website for a state park reservation system. (Yes, $66,000,000.00). The contract requires the website to work for all California residents, including those with disabilities. (In other words, the website is supposed to be accessible.) The website gets delivered and rolled out, but is not in fact accessible.

These are the facts alleged in a lawsuit filed earlier this year by the disability civil rights firm TRELegal. The lawsuit seeks damages on behalf of the State of California and injunctive relief on behalf of a blind representative plaintiff. I’ve illustrated this post with an image of a pile of money — money that would have been better spent building accessibility into this website.

The press release announcing the case is titled “Fraud Whistleblower Seeks Redress for Inaccessible Public Website that Cost California $66 Million.” You can read the whistleblower press release here.

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Accessible Procurement Matters

At its core, this web accessibility lawsuit is about procurement. It is a serious civil rights case brought by a respected civil rights firm with a lesson for anyone selling and purchasing technology.

The lesson? It is not enough to put language in a contract and hope for the best. Technology must be tested for accessibility and usability throughout the development process, on delivery, and once it is in use. Especially in a situation like this, where accessibility was identified as a deliverable, remediation must happen before roll-out.

And not just automated or even manual accessibility testing. Websites — and all digital technology — must be evaluated by a cross-section of users with disabilities to ensure the technology will really work for everyone. In the California whistleblower case, the website at issue was for a state-wide park reservation system.

How hard would it have been to bring in groups of disabled users along the way to make sure the site could be used by all Californians, including those who cannot hold a mouse, see a screen, or hear audible content? Couldn’t some of that 66 million have been allocated to real usability testing?

The access barriers behind the whistleblower suit should have been identified long before the site was deployed for California residents. A robust accessible procurement process would have helped bake accessibility into every element of the process. [A new resource from the non-profit Disability:IN that I helped develop offers tips and best practices for developing such a process. Visit Disability:IN’s Disability:INclusive Workplaces – Accessible Technology Procurement Toolkit]

In his firm’s press release, attorney Tim Elder compares the park system website to a physical building without a ramp:

California’s taxpayers should be outraged that they’re paying big money for such a shoddy website. The disability access violations are on the level of a new multimillion-dollar public rec center built with stairs up to the front door and no wheelchair ramp.” Timothy Elder, Principal Attorney at TRE Legal Practice.

It is 2019, and long past time for technology to be born accessible. I cannot predict what will happen with this lawsuit as it makes its way through the court system. But regardless of outcome, I invite technology purchasers and developers to take its core message to heart: be sure the technology you are purchasing can be used by everyone, and remember that “everyone” includes people with disabilities.

Updates to this article

March 21, 2023 Update

This case is currently scheduled to go to trial in the summer of 2023.

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