​​​​California Unruh Civil Rights Act Compliance


Businesses in the state of California not only have to comply with applicable federal regulations related to website accessibility, they have to comply with stringent state requirements. One of them is the Unruh Civil Rights Act (California Civil Code section 51, often referred to as Unruh or the Unruh Act). The Unruh Act bans discrimination from California establishments and has adopted the same standards for discrimination as the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA.


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The ADA and Unruh: a surge in costly accessibility lawsuits

Title III of the ADA bans discrimination in “places of public accommodation,” and legal precedent has determined that places of public accommodation includes the internet. If your website is not accessible, you’re in violation of the ADA. And because Unruh adopted ADA standards, if your website is in violation of the ADA, you’re also in violation of the Unruh Civil Rights Act.

This connection between the two pieces of legislation has been the driving force behind a surge in website accessibility lawsuits in California, which is consistent with a steady pace of ADA-related website accessibility lawsuits on the national level. And non-compliance can be costly. If sued, a successful ADA lawsuit generally limits recovery costs to legal fees and any expenses related to avoiding further harm (for example, updating the website to ensure accessibility). By contrast, the Unruh Civil Rights Act entitles successful plaintiffs to a minimum of $4,000 and up to three times the cost of actual damages.

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WCAG: the standard for Unruh and ADA compliance

How do you make your website compliant with Unruh and the ADA? The best practice is conforming to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines – or WCAG.

WCAG is a set of technical standards that, when applied, make online content accessible for users of all abilities. Its standards suggest a site should be perceivable, operable, understandable and robust:

  • Perceivable = It’s important to present information that can be perceived in different ways, where a user can adjust color contrast or font size, or view captions for videos.
  • Operable = If someone can’t use a mouse, for example, they can use a keyboard or voice command.
  • Understandable = Information and instructions are clear and navigation methods are easy to understand and use.
  • Robust = Content must be robust enough so that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of users and types of assistive technologies.

Updates to WCAG are reflected in the version number. For example, the first release was WCAG 1.0. Subsequent releases include 2.0, 2.1, and 2.2. A, AA and AAA represent the conformance level with A the minimum and AAA the maximum.

WCAG is consistently referenced as the benchmark for accessibility standards. Conform with WCAG 2.0 AA, and you’re compliant with the ADA and the Unruh Act, as well as Section 508 and other international regulations.

How well is your site meeting WCAG standards?

Download our WCAG Checklist

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Boost brand loyalty and serve a wider audience with an accessible site

Organizations that choose to make their digital assets accessible to individuals with disabilities are demonstrating that they value inclusion, which can positively impact consumer loyalty. With an accessible website, companies are also opening their products and services to a much larger audience. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates one in four U.S. adults is living with a disability. These individuals, with their friends and family, represent trillions of dollars in discretionary spending.


Evaluating your state of Unruh and ADA compliance

Our Accessibility-as-a-Service approach directly supports ADA and Unruh Act compliance with an all-in-one web and mobile app accessibility solution. We combine automation and technology with manual expertise, training, and legal support to help you get your assets compliant and keep them that way, even as your content changes.

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Our risk assessment will help you understand your digital accessibility health score and your current level of compliance.

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Frequently asked questions

Does the Unruh Civil Rights Act apply to all employers in California?

The Unruh Act applies to all businesses in California. This includes hotels and motels, restaurants, theaters, hospitals, barber and beauty shops, housing accommodations, and retail establishments. However, certain employers may not be considered a “business” under the law. A primary example is public school districts.

What is considered a business establishment under the Unruh Act?

The law has been interpreted to include entities that engage in commercial activities. For example, even though a school is not considered a business under the law, it may be considered a business when engaging in commercial activities such as selling football tickets.

What is the penalty for violating the Unruh Act?

Under the Unruh Act, a business sued for violation can be required to pay a minimum of $4,000, as well as potentially three times the cost of actual damages.