Guide to ADA Compliance for Websites

Read this guide to learn about the ADA's application to websites and concrete steps you can take to make your website accessible and complaint.

How accessible is your website to online users with disabilities? What are the laws governing digital accessibility? What actions should you take to comply with these laws? How can you make your site more accessible and inclusive for all customers?

As a business owner in the United States, you must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) – the law that makes sure that people with disabilities have equal access to “places of public accommodation,” which include businesses “open to the public” both in the physical world and online.

Read this guide to learn about the ADA’s application to websites and concrete steps you can take to make your website accessible and compliant.

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Shield and gavel with Americans with Disabilities Act

What is the Americans with Disability Act?

The ADA is a US law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life. It gives millions of individuals with disabilities equal access to all public and private places, from employment to government, telecommunications, and businesses.

Title III of the ADA addresses businesses specifically. It prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in places of public accommodation, including such places as restaurants, private schools, sports stadiums, office buildings, and more. Businesses are required to make “reasonable modifications” to serve people with disabilities.

Applying Title III of the ADA to website accessibility

Because the internet as we know it did not exist when the ADA was signed into law, it does not explicitly mention website accessibility. Nevertheless, the Department of Justice, in its court decisions and new guidance on web accessibility, has confirmed  that the ADA applies to websites.

Thousands of companies are sued for inaccessible online content every year. Most lawsuits, including Domino’s digital accessibility case, involve plaintiffs citing an ADA Title III violation. As Title III bans disability discrimination in “places of public accommodation,” plaintiffs argue “places of public accommodation” most certainly include the internet.

The ADA uses WCAG to determine web accessibility

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), have become the global standard for website accessibility and the benchmark for measuring a website’s level of ADA compliance. As digital experiences evolve and become more sophisticated, the W3C publishes regular updates to the WCAG guidelines.

WCAG lists hundreds of success criteria that certified accessibility testing professionals and automated technology test against for web accessibility. WCAG covers best practices, such as using sufficient color contrast between the text and background, adding alternative text alternatives to images, and many more.

WCAG is broken down into three (3) conformance levels:

Level A

Level A is the bare minimum of digital accessibility requirements, and is typically considered as "below acceptable" in most cases.

Level AA

The standard goal that most businesses and organizations strive for in digital accessibility. The ADA requires Level AA compliance.

Level AAA

The most strict level, Level AAA, is not required as a general policy for entire sites, because it’s not possible to satisfy all its success criteria for some content.

Website browser with small businesses, government buildings, and a hospital.

Who needs to be ADA compliant?

The ADA prohibits businesses open to the public, nonprofit service providers, and government agencies from discriminating on the basis of disability. If your organization is “generally open to the public,” you have a responsibility to provide reasonable accommodations to people with disabilities.

The ADA has been interpreted as applicable (but not limited) to:

  • Hotels and other places of lodging
  • Restaurants and bars
  • Parks, zoos, and other places of recreation
  • Retail establishments
  • Hospitals and the professional offices of healthcare providers 
  • Schools, universities, and other places of education
  • Museums, libraries, galleries, and other places of of public display or collection

If your organization provides products or services to the public, you should take steps to ensure your website is in compliance with the ADA.

Data points with a clock and a law book.

What are the legal risks of non-compliance?

In 2017, there were 814 ADA-related cases. By 2019, that number jumped to more than 2,200.The pace continued in 2020, with 2,523 website-related ADA Title III lawsuits, despite the mid-year pandemic lull, many of the cases reaching new industries.

If a website is not accessible, companies risk an expensive, time-consuming lawsuit that can also significantly damage their brand. Over the years, we’ve seen an exponential rise in the number of digital accessibility cases filed in U.S. Federal Courts, with plaintiffs claiming ADA Title III violations.

Unfortunately, businesses often don’t learn about ADA web compliance until they are served a lawsuit or legal demand letter. That’s why it’s critical to understand how Title III of the ADA is interpreted when applied to website accessibility, and take proactive steps to demonstrate compliance.

Web browser with stairs on one side and a ramp with a rail on the other.

Why does ADA compliance matter?

Digital accessibility means creating and maintaining  barrier-free, usable, and inclusive digital experiences for individuals of all abilities. 

Think about digital accessibility the same way you think of accessibility in the physical world. If a building isn’t designed for someone using an assistive device, like a wheelchair, that person is blocked from moving around that building. Similarly, if a website is not designed to work with an assistive technology, like a screen reader, that individual is blocked from navigating that website.

A checklist with an accessibility icon.

How to become ADA compliant

If you’ve begun to explore website accessibility, you know it’s no simple task to turn the WCAG standards into a practical framework for making your website compliant. That’s why we put together these steps for you, as you begin your path to ADA compliance.

Start by identifying the accessibility issues on your website

Take a first pass at some of the most common and severe accessibility issues on your website with this checklist, based on the Department of Justice’s latest guidance:

  1. Make it easier for people with low vision or color blindness to separate foreground from background content by using sufficient color contrast.
  2. Add text alternatives in images and buttons using simple, descriptive language to convey purpose.
  3. For videos, include transcripts or synchronized captions that identify speakers.
  4. Use logical and intuitive navigation order of links, form elements, etc. to help users find content and determine where they are.
  5. Create accessible online forms with labels, clear instructions, error alerts, and keyboard-only access. 
  6. Refrain from using fast strobing lights in your web design, as they are known to cause seizures or physical reactions.
  7. Make sure people can use a browser tool to increase text size and zoom in. 
  8. Use page headings that clearly and properly indicate the hierarchy of information on a page.
  9. For people with disabilities who don’t use a mouse to navigate web content, make all functionality available from a keyboard.
  10. Help users avoid and correct mistakes, such as identifying input errors on forms.
  11. Provide users with a way to report accessibility issues, so they can be fixed.

In addition to the above checklist, you can use tools, such as AudioEye’s Issue Reporting, that can help you surface specific issues with your source code on an ongoing basis.

The AudioEye Issue Reporting dashboard provides full visibility into your site’s accessibility issues, fixes, and details on solving issues that require human intervention.

Fix the accessibility issues on your website

Once you identify your website’s accessibility issues, you will need to correct them. You may fix accessibility issues with changes directly to your source code or website builder, and by using technology like AudioEye’s Auto Remediations to fix the majority of common accessibility issues for you.

Keep in mind that automated tools that check for compliance issues often miss complex errors that require more context and human intervention. In order to catch and resolve all accessibility issues, you  need a more comprehensive approach that deploys both intelligent, automated compliance software and certified human experts.

Have an ongoing plan for accessibility

With every new blog post, style adjustment, and other website change, there’s an opportunity for a website to become inaccessible. That’s why a one-time accessibility audit is insufficient and you need to put in place an ongoing method to monitor and fix emergent accessibility issues.

To make ongoing accessibility feasible and sustainable, AudioEye employs active monitoring technology that tests a website for new accessibility issues with each new visitor, giving you a real-time analysis of your website’s accessibility.

Provide an accessibility statement

An accessibility statement is a written declaration of your commitment to accessibility that also provides information about your content, including the accessibility standard applied in your operations (such as WCAG) and contact information in case users encounter accessibility issues. Make sure to 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.

Beginner Guides to ADA Compliance and Website Accessibility

Frequently Asked Questions

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