The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a broad-reaching law requiring businesses and governments to provide accommodations for people with disabilities. Most people associate it with building and road improvements. Handicapped spaces, rails in bathrooms, and curb cuts are a few examples of ADA-required improvements.
The goal of these regulations is to give disabled people the same access to businesses and government services that non-disabled people do. Now that the internet is so vital to interacting with both, there have been cases where plaintiffs have filed ADA lawsuits against websites they were required to use but were unable to due to their disability.
For businesses, this would be a violation of Title III of the act, which covers “places of public accommodation”. Courts have interpreted websites to be part of that, even though they are not physical places. This puts businesses at legal risk because the ADA is a strict liability law.
What Is Required?
The ADA law was written in 1990, just before the internet boom. There isn’t a checklist that has been passed into law saying which features are necessary to comply, but web developers have worked on ways to make the web more accessible for decades. In tech-speak, web accessibility is also known as “a11y”, a numeronym for the word accessibility.
To comply with the ADA, you need to make sure that as many visitors as possible enjoy “full and equal” use of your website. If a disabled person does sue you for an inaccessible website and they can prove that your site isn’t meeting a11y standards, you could be held liable. Any business with a public-facing website could, in theory, be sued.
What Standards Are The Courts Looking At?
There are many ways that someone can be disabled. Cognitive impairments, learning disabilities, visual impairments, hearing impairments, and motor impairments can all inhibit someone’s ability to use your website. It is impossible to cover all possible edge cases, so it is also impossible to have your site be 100% accessible.
So How Do You Avoid Liability?
We look to the courts. In past cases, the courts have used something called the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) to make their rulings. This is a detailed list of web design practices that web developers use to improve accessibility. It lays out in technical language different “success criteria” that make your website more perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust.
The WCAG success criteria are divided into three conformance levels: A, AA, and AAA. The A level standards are essential things a website needs to have to be accessible. If parts of your site do not meet these standards then those parts don’t meet even the most basic level of web accessibility and open you up to liability.
The AA standards are what the courts are using in ADA cases. These standards address the biggest barriers for users with disabilities. The AAA standards show the highest levels of web accessibility and cover less-common edge cases. However, it is not feasible for all websites to completely comply with AAA standards depending on the types of content on their sites and the courts recognize this.
The best bet to stay safe in a legal fight is to meet the AA standards as a top priority then use AAA standards where you can on your highest-traffic areas. Fortunately, because there is no legally-mandated list of accessibility requirements, unlike building codes for instance, websites do have flexibility on how they can make their sites accessible. This flexibility standard has been upheld by the courts since there is no legally-required list of features websites must have to comply with the act.
Developing An ADA-Compliant Website
The WCAG guidelines are complex and detailed. It is a technical document meant for web developers. Thus, it can be difficult to say whether or not parts of your website meet the different success criteria exactly. To help developers and others know what to look for, there are abbreviated lists of the requirements out there.
The WCAG checklist is the most comprehensive. You can use their filters to sort out different levels and accessibility techniques to make sense of the standards. Others include the a11y project checklist and a11y style guide.
Space doesn’t permit us to go through every rule you’ll need, but here are some high points that many business websites miss out on.
Your website’s content needs to be understandable to people who are blind and deaf. The whole reason for alt tags in HTML is to provide an alternative resource for people who cannot see an image or a video to understand what is supposed to be there. Including closed captioning on videos, transcripts, and audio descriptions are necessary.
All website pages should be navigable with only a keyboard and include skip navigation links. Screen readers read out the anchor text of each link, so forcing users to hear the names of your navigation for each page they go to slows down their use of the site.
Users must also be able to control elements of the site that might be challenging to use due to their disability. For instance, if you have a video that cannot be paused, stopped, or hidden, that’s a problem. Rapid flashing elements are another concern. No page should have an element that flashes more than three times a second.
Unlike browsers, screen readers are much stricter about using website markup to describe what’s on a page. If your site doesn’t meet W3C standards, this is a great place to start the accessibility journey.
A lot of the presentation accessibility factors may annoy the designers on your team, but they are important. Disabled web users should be able to resize text up to 200% and still use the site. Content must be delivered in a meaningful order and in a way that doesn’t rely on color or contrast to understand the content. Images of texts should also be avoided except for instances like logos.
If you have forms, error messages, input fields, and/or navigation elements, these all need to be predictable from page to page. Nothing should change just because someone starts adding input or clicking on an element that isn’t clearly something that will trigger a change.
Errors on forms should also be easy to identify, understand, and correct, especially if you have a page that creates a legal commitment between you and the user or is for a financial transaction. The coding for these pages also needs to be compatible with assistive technologies.
Even simple things, like setting the language for your website or putting in unique and descriptive page titles, can mean a world of difference in how disabled people can use your site. Page navigation should follow a logical order, and link purpose should be clear based on the anchor text.
Again, this is just a high-level overview. The guideline lists have much more detail and the WCAG document has the full guidelines that courts are using for ADA cases.
How Much Does Compliance Cost?
If you are building a website from scratch, it should not cost too much more to make it accessible if you make it clear to your designers and programmers that you want to meet the standards. However, if you are overhauling an existing site then the costs may be higher. The costs will all depend on how complex your site is and what needs to be changed.
Simple things like meeting W3C standards and adding titles and alt tags just take time, but if there are deeper navigation issues or design issues then making those parts accessible could take quite a lot of study to keep the current design stable. At worst, you may need to redesign the page. If you have a lot of non-text content then the cost for adding in audio descriptions, transcripts, and captions will need to be addressed.
If you’re not in immediate danger of a lawsuit, waiting for a planned branding update or site upgrade is a perfect time to add accessibility features to your website. There are also web developers who specialize in accessible websites you could hire who can do an accessibility audit.
If you have trouble justifying the cost of paying for accessibility updates, look up previous court cases where sites were sued and lost. Some had to pay thousands of dollars in settlements and judgments. Depending on your legal exposure, the costs may be justified even if they are more than you expect.
Benefits of Making Your Website ADA-compliant
Besides the obvious benefit of avoiding legal liability, ADA-compliant websites have some additional benefits. Making an accessible website often has a side effect of easier navigation and clearer design for non-disabled people as well. This give an opportunity to create a better customer experience and a better perception of your brand.
Search engines also look for accessibility features as part of their SEO analysis. Sites have to be coded closer to standards for screen readers to interpret them correctly, and by sticking with these standards it’s easier for web crawlers to understand and classify your content. This does mean that some accessibility changes may cause a change in your SEO, so you will need to watch for this.
As businesses rely more on their websites to serve as the public face of their companies, the more they will need to take into account accessibility issues. Taking steps now to use a11y standards will not only improve websites but could also keep your business out of court.