When it comes to web accessibility, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is far from the only guideline that matters. However, it is an important piece of legislation and a great place to start. Websites that don’t comply with ADA accessibility requirements are subject to costly and reputation-damaging lawsuits. Plus, if your website is non-compliant, that means it’s likely not usable for a sizable portion of internet users. That’s bad for both customers and your business.
So, what should organizations know about the ADA and web accessibility? Find out in this guide. You’ll learn what the ADA is, how it relates to web accessibility, why it matters, and how to comply with the law.
1. Overview of the ADA
What is the ADA?
ADA stands for the Americans with Disabilities Act, a far-reaching civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in virtually every sector of American life. Title III of the law specifically requires that places of “public accommodation” – including public spaces as well as businesses – be accessible to all people. While the law does not explicitly require “web” accessibility, the DOJ has stated that places of public accommodation include websites and web content. In other words, the ADA’s accessibility requirements apply to websites and web content.
What are some examples of this web content? Basically if an organization sells or provides services or products online, any web page or app related to the sale or provision of those services and products is included. Essentially, the ADA applies to everything from ecommerce websites to food delivery apps.
Below are some specific examples of web content that must be accessible under the ADA:
- Websites, including the text color and size, visual and audio content, meta data, and navigability of each page
- PDFs and other downloadable content
- Mobile apps
- Mobile versions of websites
Most web accessibility issues are prevented or solved by the hard work of web designers and developers – those who actually create, maintain, and troubleshoot web content. However, it is up to organizations to create a culture of accessibility at all levels. Company leadership should be educated on web accessibility policy and requirements, such as those included in the ADA, in order to create initiatives for improving and maintaining web accessibility. Learn why in the next section.
The importance of ADA compliance
Obviously, complying with web accessibility laws like the ADA is not optional. Non-compliance opens your organization up to lawsuits, which can cost massively in terms of legal fees, settlement payouts, and potential loss of revenue. What’s more, these lawsuits can cause reputational damage that hurt your relationships with current and future customers.
So, the business case for ADA compliance is clear. But web accessibility isn’t just a financial issue – it’s an ethical one. The ADA and other web accessibility laws exist primarily to make the internet more equitable for everyone. Thus complying with the ADA by making your web content accessible is simply the right thing to do.
The ADA vs. other accessibility laws
While the ADA is probably the farthest-reaching accessibility law in the books, there are numerous federal, state, and even local laws that may also apply to your organization.
One important such law is Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This law applies to federal agencies and any organization that does business with them. Across the Canadian border, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) sets web accessibility requirements for organizations in Ontario. Like the ADA, both of these policies apply to digital accessibility, requiring organizations to make web content and applications accessible to all people.
But what exactly makes web content accessible? In other words, how do these laws define web accessibility? We’ll break it down in the next section.
2. Defining web accessibility
Again, the ADA does not explicitly mention or define web accessibility. This creates a challenge for organizations wondering how to comply with the law. Fortunately, reliable guidelines for web accessibility do exist and have helped organizations around the world comply with accessibility requirements.
The clearest definition of web accessibility, sometimes called digital accessibility, comes from the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). This group, formed by the World Wide Web Consortium or W3C, publishes digital accessibility guidelines that have come to be accepted as the global standard on web accessibility.
According to WAI, web accessibility exists when “websites, tools, and technologies are designed and developed so that people with disabilities can use them.” This definition acknowledges the role of both web designers and web developers in ensuring web accessibility, but WAI also provides tips for writers on making web content more accessible.
The goal, says WAI, is for people with disabilities to be able to perceive, understand, navigate, interact with, and contribute to the Web, regardless of the presence of any of the following types of disabilities:
WAI explains how accessible web content also benefits people without disabilities. Sometimes a person has a “temporary disability,” such as a broken arm, that limits how they interact with the web. It also acknowledges what are sometimes referred to as “situational limitations,” or situations that affect how a user interacts with web content, such as using a mobile phone, using a weak wifi signal, using a device outside in bright sunlight, or using a device in an environment where the person cannot play audio.
WAI publishes specific criteria to help organizations design and develop web content that addresses all of the barriers described above. These criteria are called the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, or WCAG, and they’re a crucial tool in complying with accessibility laws such as the ADA.
3. How to achieve ADA compliance
Not only does the ADA not explicitly mention digital accessibility, but it also does not provide specific criteria for how to comply. This is where WCAG comes in. As explained in the previous section, WCAG is the globally accepted global standard for web accessibility. And though it is not mentioned in the ADA, the DOJ has referenced it in ADA enforcement actions. For most organizations, an important step in achieving ADA compliance is making sure your website conforms to WCAG standards.
What is WCAG?
WCAG is a set of criteria organizations should follow in order to make their web content accessible. It is not a law, but rather a set of guidelines created with the ultimate goal of accessible web content. It is most useful for designers and developers who need technical standards to guide their creation of accessible web content.
WCAG has been updated several times and is now in its second version, also known as WCAG 2. WCAG 2.0 was published in 2008, WCAG 2.1 in 2018, WCAG 2.2 is in its draft phase, and a third version – WCAG 3 – is on the horizon. These revisions reflect evolutions in both technology and public understanding of the needs of users with a range of abilities and limitations.
Every version of WCAG is divided into three conformance levels: A, AA, and AAA. Level A is the lowest level of accessibility, covering the bare minimum but still leaving some barriers. Level AA eliminates more accessibility barriers and is the recommended level for most organizations. Level AAA represents the highest level of accessibility, allowing organizations to go “above and beyond,” but not all of its criteria are necessary or possible in all situations.
Again, WCAG is an important tool for the technical side of digital accessibility. ADA compliance testing usually includes WCAG conformance testing, in which organizations use a combination of automated scanning and manual testing to evaluate their web content against WCAG criteria.
However, ADA compliance does not stop with WCAG conformance. Organizations should also utilize user testing to get an idea of how their web content performs when used by actual people with disabilities. This should include the use of assistive technology, such as screen readers or text-to-speech systems, where possible.
Web accessibility isn’t about simply conforming to one set of standards or complying with certain laws, though that is a key part of the equation. Ultimately, an organization should approach web accessibility holistically. Not only should web designers work with accessibility in mind from the start, but organization leadership should model a culture of accessibility, including implementing accessibility training for employees. When digital accessibility is the goal, the internet is a better place for everyone.