I tell you what, if there's one word that everyone loves, it's "compliance."
More and more businesses that operate online are becoming aware that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to their web-based activities (especially with the rising number of lawsuits drawing the issue to public attention), and wondering what ADA website compliance involves.
In short, ADA website compliance means that a website makes the information it holds as accessible as possible to Americans with a range of disabilities. It's a noble cause, right?
Accessibility becomes more and more important as essential parts of our lives, from banking to medical care, involve the web. And in addition to taking care of those important things, people with health conditions or impairments should get to binge-stream their favorite shows or easily order dinner online just like I can!
The good news: You can begin making your website more accessible pretty easily.
The challenge: From a legal perspective, things are a little bit murky. There are a lot of different considerations and levels of compliance, but I'll explain more about that.
Website Accessibility & the ADA
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was first passed in 1990. Twenty years later, the US Department of Justice released an update called the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design. These standards cover the design of physical spaces and have been interpreted to include web locations as well, so it can be difficult for the would-be accessible website designer to use them.
While the ADA itself may not be very specific about web compliance, the goal is clear: that we reach the same level of accessibility online that people with disabilities are guaranteed by law offline.
Since 2010, the DOJ has been promising to release additional regulations outlining what is and isn't ADA compliant in website design and development. They originally projected regulations in 2018, but these were dropped, leaving them enforcing the website ADA compliance on a case-by-case basis.
Case law has been the most helpful in illuminating the implications of the ADA for websites.There have been lawsuits involving companies like Expedia, Hotels.com, Southwest Airlines, and Target as defendants and primarily featuring accessibility organizations as plaintiffs. These cases had mixed results, but each helped clarify the ADA's jurisdiction on the web.
Most recently, however, pizza chain Domino's has been brought under suit for their website not being accessible for specialty ordering. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the case, instead upholding the decision of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals who said the “alleged inaccessibility of Domino’s website and app impedes access to the goods and services of its physical pizza franchises—which are places of public accommodation.”
The decision means that Domino’s will have to fight Robles’ accessibility claims in court. Essentially, this signals to websites that they must be accessible to all peoples because the lack of compliance could effectively shut out significant portions of the population who are differently-abled.
Who does it apply to?
In short, businesses covered by the ADA are:
- Private employers with 15 or more employees
- Public entities at state and local levels (covered under Title II, which includes both physical and programmatic access to all programs and services offered)
- Businesses operating for the benefit of the public and non-profits (more specifically, "public accommodations and commercial facilities" are covered under Title III)
Most businesses are covered under Title III, which guarantees:
...the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, or accommodations of any place of "public accommodation" by any person who owns, leases, or operates a place of public accommodation. Public accommodations include most places of lodging (such as inns and hotels), recreation, transportation, education, and dining, along with stores, care providers, and places of public displays.
While this was obviously written for physical products and locations, case law seems pretty clear that it extends to online business and information as well. And the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals support this assessment that websites are considered public spaces, as well.
Many private clubs and religious organizations may be exempted, however, because they are neither public accommodations or commercial facilities.
If you work with the federal government...
....you're actually covered under an entirely different piece of legislation.
Companies that work directly with or take money from the federal government are covered under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which includes significant constraints that may impact website style and design.
Most businesses don't need to worry about 508 compliance, but those who do can use the same tools to bring your website "up to code" that you can for ADA compliance (i.e. WCAG 2.0 guidelines—more on that in a little bit).
How to Comply with ADA Standards
If the ADA is so vague about what's required of websites, how can any business hope to meet accessibility standards? In a surprise twist, the godfathers of the internet were on it long before the government wised up to the problem.
Leading web developers have been pioneering accessibility and publishing standards since 1994. In 1999, the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) created the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). In essence, the people who determine how the internet is written came together to advise web developers on how to make websites accessible not only to people with disabilities, but to all web users, including those with highly limited devices.
In 2008, these standards were updated in WCAG 2.0, which has become an ISO International Standard for the web. A number of governments require that public websites meet these standards, including the EU and Australia.
WCAG was updated again June 2018 to level 2.1. WCAG 2.1 covers a range of new recommendations for making your website content even more accessible.
The updated wcag 2.1
The principles, guidelines and success criteria in WCAG stay fixed, but techniques are periodically updated, so it's a good idea to check in with the updated guidelines when you're working on a website.
The five principles of WCAG 2.1 are the four from 2.0 of being perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust, and a new one in 2.1 of conformance. Within each principle are guidelines, and within each guideline are techniques and failure examples.
Here's a list directly from W3C and WAI:
- Provide text alternatives for non-text content.
- Provide captions and other alternatives for multimedia.
- Create content that can be presented in different ways,
including by assistive technologies, without losing meaning.
- Make it easier for users to see and hear content.
- Make all functionality available from a keyboard.
- Give users enough time to read and use content.
- Do not use content that causes seizures.
- Help users navigate and find content.
- Make text readable and understandable.
- Make content appear and operate in predictable ways.
- Help users avoid and correct mistakes.
- Maximize compatibility with current and future user tools.
- Ensure your website pages satisfy conformance requirements
There are three levels of conformance with WCAG: A, AA, and AAA.
Level A conformity isn't difficult, but it also provides the least benefit to impaired users. The focus of this level is making it easier for browser readers to navigate and translate the site. While this is an improvement for many websites, it doesn't make a site as accessible as the DOJ would like it to be.
Level AA is a little more significant, and makes sites accessible to people with a wider range of disabilities, including the most common barriers to use. It won't impact the look and feel of the site as much as Level AAA compliance, though it does include guidance on color contrast and error identification. Most businesses should be aiming for Level AA conformity, and it appears to reflect the level of accessibility the DOJ expects.
Level AAA is the most demanding level of accessibility compliance, and it will significantly affect the design of the site. However, it also makes a website accessible to the widest range of people with disabilities.
As I mentioned above, under each WCAG 2.1 principle is a list of guidelines, and under each guideline are compliance standards, with techniques and failure examples at each level. Some guidelines include only Level A items; others include items for multiple levels of conformance, building from A to AAA. At each stage, you can easily see what more you would need to do to reach Level AA or AAA. In this way, many websites include elements at multiple levels of accessibility.
I should mention one caveat to all of this. Businesses that are required to comply but don't have the ability to bring their websites into compliance can provide an accessible alternative to provide the same information, goods, and services that they provide online, like a staffed phone line. The trick, however, is that this option has to provide at least equal access, including in terms of hours of operation. And, as we know, the internet is around 24/7, so good luck with that.
Thanks for sticking with me through this; I know it involves a lot. But the cause is just and your heart is pure, so go forth and triumph! Your customers with health conditions or impairments will be grateful.
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published April 29, 2016. It has since been updated with the most recent information and standards.)
If you're redesigning your website for ADA compliance, organization becomes even more important. If you could use a little help on that front, fill out the form below to check out our detailed redesign checklist.