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A Blind Customer Could Not Use Winn-Dixies Website. He Sued. Changes Are Coming

June 14, 2017
Source: Miami Herald, Florida

A Miami federal judge has ruled that Winn-Dixie violated the Americans with Disabilities Act [ADA] by failing to make its website accessible to blind and visually impaired users.

In a landmark win for civil rights advocates on Monday, the Jacksonville, Florida-based grocery and pharmacy chain has set aside $250,000 to revamp its online site and was ordered to pay the plaintiffs legal fees.

“Were not suing for damages,” said Scott Dinin, an attorney for the plaintiff. “Were only suing them to follow the laws that have been in this nation for 27 years.”

The case was brought by Miami resident Juan Gil, who is legally blind and uses screen reading technology to access the internet. The software has allowed Gil to use 500 to 600 websites, including Publix, Walgreens and government sites, but his vocalizing software could not read information on when he tried to order a prescription and look up store hours.

In the original complaint, Gil “felt as if another door had been slammed in his face” when he discovered he could not use the site. The complaint said he preferred to fill prescriptions online because of privacy concerns and price, and said that if the website changed he would certainly use it.

The company created the website in September 2015 and recently spent $7 million to update it to incorporate the grocery stores popular rewards program, but neither effort included discussions about disability access, according to court records. An expert witness at a digital accessibility company testified that most of the problems could be corrected with simple modifications, and estimated that the total cost of the fix would be $37,000, just over half a percent of the money spent on the recent update.

In the booming world of e-commerce, courts are divided on how to treat websites under the ADA. According to a Statistic Brain Research Institute publication, online sales exceeded $304 billion in 2014, and 87 percent of Americans have browsed online stores and made internet purchases. The ADA applies to any “place of public accommodation.” The legal debate centers on whether ADA regulations apply online as well, or only at physical locations.

In this case, Judge Robert Scola wrote in his ruling against Winn-Dixie that its website is a place of public accommodation because of its integration with its stores, and because it “operates as a gateway to the physical store locations.”

“We understand Winn-Dixie plans to appeal,” Dinin said. “We welcome the opportunity to bring this issue to the public light, and show how important it is to see accessibility and diversity at the center of every decision making process.” He says he plans to take the case to the Supreme Court if necessary.

Winn-Dixie operates 495 grocery stores in Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia and Mississippi. The company's attorney did not return a voicemail message left Tuesday afternoon.

In court testimony, the grocery and pharmacy chain said it is now building an ADA policy and will take steps to accommodate screen-reading software.

Gil's lawyer, Dinin, questions their commitment given their decision to appeal. “In this day and age, the best companies embrace diversity and disability,” Dinin said. “Every customer [they are] not reaching is a customer [they are] losing.”

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