Expert Guide to ADA Compliance
You probably know that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was written to prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities in all areas of public life.
But did you know those same protections also apply to websites? Or that the number of website accessibility lawsuits is steadily rising — from 814 in 2017 to a record 3,255 in 2022?
It isn’t just large businesses getting sued, either. Any website can receive a demand letter or be sued for alleged violations under the ADA.
So, how can you make sure your website is accessible and compliant?
What Is the ADA?
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a landmark civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities.
Title III of the ADA prohibits discrimination in “places of public accommodation,” which the Department of Justice (DOJ) has repeatedly stated includes websites. Over the last 20 years, numerous lawsuits and DOJ settlements have supported this interpretation.
What Is Web Accessibility?
Web accessibility is the inclusive practice of making websites, digital tools, and technologies accessible and usable for people with disabilities.
In the United States, one in four adults lives with some type of disability. That means more than 60 million people could struggle to use your website, if you don’t build it with accessibility in mind.
Like the wheelchair ramps and Braille elevator controls found in the physical world, accessible design practices like image alt text and closed captions can help remove online barriers for people with disabilities.
When it comes to ADA compliance, businesses should prioritize accessibility both in-person and online.
How Does the ADA Assess Web Accessibility?
Because the ADA does not have technical standards for web accessibility, the DOJ recommends that businesses use the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) to evaluate the accessibility of their websites and digital content. Although it isn’t codified into law, past rulings have set WCAG 2.0 Level AA as the benchmark for web accessibility.
Published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), WCAG 2.0 consists of 61 success criteria, which are written as pass-or-fail statements that address common accessibility issues like low-contrast text, missing or non-descriptive alt text, and keyboard accessibility issues.
WCAG 2.1 (which was released in June 2018) adds an additional 17 success criteria, for a total of 78 success criteria.
WCAG 2.2 (which was released in August 2023) removes 1 success criteria and adds 9 new success criteria, for a total of 87 success criteria.
Who Needs to Be Compliant?
Under Title III, businesses “open to the public” both in the physical world and online are required to provide equal access to people with disabilities.
Examples of businesses open to the public include:
- Restaurants and bars.
- Retail establishments.
- Hotels and other places of lodging.
- Parks, zoos, and other places of recreation.
- Hospitals and professional offices of healthcare providers.
- Schools and universities.
- Museums, libraries, and galleries.
AudioEye successfully defends a customer in precedent ADA case for website accessibility.
Read the story
Web Accessibility Lawsuits Are On the Rise
Web accessibility isn’t just the right thing to do, or an effective way to open your “digital” doors to more potential customers. It’s also an area of growing risk for businesses of all sizes.
According to a report by Seyfarth Shaw LLP, the number of website accessibility lawsuits filed in federal courts has increased by 12-14% annually since 2019. And while it’s hard to say with certainty what is behind this uptick, there are several factors to consider:
- When the COVID-19 pandemic forced people to do more things online, it also clarified the need for websites that were accessible to everyone.
- Website accessibility has been in the news lately, with a number of high-profile accessibility lawsuits reaching settlements.
- In 2022, the DOJ reiterated its stance that organizations have a responsibility to provide accessible websites.
Whether these events are behind the increase or not, it’s reasonable to expect the number of lawsuits to continue rising — which makes it more important than ever to deliver an accessible user experience to every website visitor.
Did you know?
Between July 2021 and July 2022, AudioEye invalidated 334 legal allegations, helping businesses respond and resolve lawsuits faster.
What Are the Most Common Accessibility Issues Cited In Legal Claims?
Based on data from claims reviewed by AudioEye between July 2021 and July 2022, the accessibility issues cited most often are:
- Missing image descriptions or alt text
- Empty links and buttons
- Info and content structure inaccessible to assistive technologies
Here’s a quick explanation of these accessibility issues — and how you can avoid them on your own website:
Missing Image Descriptions or Alt Text (WCAG Success Criterion 1.1.1)
According to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the intent of this Success Criterion is to “make information conveyed by non-text content accessible through the use of a text alternative.”
In simple terms, that means any non-decorative image or graphic has a text alternative that screen readers can read out loud — or convert to Braille — for people with visual impairments, sensory processing disorders, or learning disorders.
Done right, alt text can paint a complete picture of a website for people who cannot perceive images visually.
Unfortunately, many businesses forget to provide alt text. Or they write something so non-descriptive — like an image of a menu that is simply labeled “menu” — it might as well not be there.
Empty Links and Buttons (WCAG Success Criterion 2.4.4)
According to the W3C, the intent of this Success Criterion is to “help users understand the purpose of each link so they can decide whether they want to follow the link.”
In order to be accessible, hyperlinks should contain clear, descriptive text that tells users exactly what they’ll get — or where they’ll go — by clicking the link. Not only is this helpful for screen reader users (who often jump between headers and links to get a sense of what each section covers), but it also supports comprehension for people with cognitive or memory impairments.
Info and Content Structure Inaccessible to Assistive Technologies (WCAG Success Criterion 1.3.1)
According to the W3C, the intent of this Success Criterion is to “ensure that information and relationships that are implied by visual or auditory formatting are preserved when the presentation format changes (i.e., when content is read by a screen reader).”
Typically, this accessibility issue occurs when a designer chooses a header for its visual appearance (for example: skipping an <h3> tag because the <h4> tag “looks better”) instead of following the proper heading structure.
According to the W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative, skipping heading ranks can be confusing to people who rely on screen readers and other assistive technology and should be avoided whenever possible.
How Can I Make My Organization ADA-Compliant?
Following web accessibility standards like WCAG is an important first step toward ongoing ADA compliance.
Based on the DOJ’s guidance for web accessibility, as well as precedent set out in past cases, we recommend businesses take the following steps to best position themselves for ADA compliance:
- Find (and Fix) Accessibility Issues on Your Website
- Have an Ongoing Plan for Accessibility
- Conduct Periodic Manual Accessibility Audits
- Provide an Accessibility Statement
Find (and Fix) Accessibility Issues on Your Website
Taking a proactive approach to web accessibility is one of the best ways to avoid getting sued for alleged violations under the ADA. By scanning your site on a regular basis, you can fix accessibility issues as they arise and deliver a better browsing experience for every user.
AudioEye’s Auto Remediations can detect up to 70% of common accessibility issues — including missing image alt text, missing video captions, improperly ordered HTML tags, and certain keyboard accessibility issues — and automatically fix about two-thirds of them.
Have an Ongoing Plan for Accessibility
Every new blog post, image, and product update is a chance to accidentally introduce new accessibility issues to your site. That’s why one-time audits are insufficient for ongoing compliance — and why you need a scalable plan for accessibility.
To make accessibility attainable and sustainable, we use Active Monitoring. Every time a visitor loads a new page on a website that uses AudioEye, our solution tests for new accessibility issues and deploys automated remediations.
Additionally, AudioEye’s 24/7 Help Desk allows users to send feedback directly to our certified experts — helping you respond quickly to accessibility issues.
Conduct Periodic Manual Accessibility Audits
Certain types of content — such as video, audio, and PDF — cannot be fixed with automation. And some accessibility issues are too subjective for automation to resolve. For this reason, businesses should employ regular manual accessibility testing conducted by certified accessibility experts and assistive technology users.
At AudioEye, our certified experts work with assistive technology users to provide first-hand feedback and guidance on the best way to remediate accessibility issues.
Provide an Accessibility Statement
An Accessibility Statement is a declaration of your commitment to accessibility that also provides information about your content, including the accessibility standard applied to your website (such as WCAG 2.2) and contact information in case users encounter accessibility issues.
As part of your statement, you should include any known accessibility limitations of your website, the measures taken by your organization to ensure accessibility, the environments in which the content has been tested, and references to applicable national or local laws and policies.
Accessibility is a journey, and we're here to help guide you down that path. Get in touch to see a customized approach to compliance for your organization.