Website ADA Compliance

Web Design & ADA Compliance

If you are a business owner, you know the importance of having a quality website that is available to anyone in the world… but if your website is not ADA compliant then it isn’t accessible to those individuals with certain disabilities. Even worse, failure to make your website compliant could mean you are in violation of the ADA, putting you at risk of a lawsuit. So what exactly is “ADA compliance” when it comes to websites and what should you do about it? This article will explore the history of the ADA, how it relates to websites, current WCAG 2.1 AA requirements, and what it takes to make your website ADA compliant.

What is the ADA?

First, let’s go way back in time to the year 1990 — The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air premiered on TV, Home Alone was released in theaters, the Hubble Telescope was put into orbit, Microsoft released Windows 3.0, and on July 26 then President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (or ADA for short) into law.

This comprehensive and important civil rights law prohibited discrimination based on disability and required all public places and businesses to accommodate everyone, including those with disabilities. Essentially disabled people should have full use and equal enjoyment of the goods, services and accommodations of places like restaurants, schools, hotels, malls, parks, banks and public transportation. While many people might just think this means making sure a building is wheelchair accessible and has handicapped parking, they would be forgetting those with hearing, speech, visual or other disabilities — all requiring special consideration.

What About Websites?

Something not mentioned in the ADA… websites. When the law was originally signed back in July 1990 websites were not a consideration because they didn’t even exist yet — the world’s first ever website wouldn’t be created for another few months (December 1990). Additionally, the Internet was still in its infancy as global Internet usage was less than 0.05% and it wouldn’t reach 1% for another 7 years. So you might be asking yourself; how does this 30-year-old federal law pertain to a technology that didn’t even exist at the time it was written?

While the law hasn’t been amended to include websites, how the law is being interpreted has changed. Title III of the ADA mandates that all “public places” and businesses remove any “access barriers” that would prevent a person with disabilities from fully accessing them.

What are Public Places & Access Barriers?

So what exactly constitutes a “public place”? In 1990 it was obviously someplace physical that you could actually visit in person; today, that’s not so clear. Over the past 30-years the Internet has exploded in popularity and has become so intertwined with our everyday lives that the places we visit online are now as much of a public place as the town square — and if online virtual places, like websites, are considered public places then we need to ensure that people with disabilities have the same access to them as anyone else by removing any access barriers.

So what exactly are the “access barriers” disabled people might encounter on a website? Just like a building without wheelchair access would be considered an access barrier to a handicapped person in the real world, similar barriers exist in the digital world as well. Those who are visually impaired are particularly effected and would consider everything from difficult to read text, to code that doesn’t function on a screen reader to be significant access barriers for them. Those with hearing impairments would consider video or audio without captions to be access barriers.

This very recent change in how both society and the courts interpret what is and what is not a “public place” is why your website should comply with the law by removing all “access barriers” — and if it does comply, then your website is considered to be “ADA compliant”.

Am I at Risk of a Lawsuit?

Even just a few years ago, ADA compliance was not a factor at all when developing a website and a lawsuit because of it was unheard of — not so anymore. In the past few years the amount of lawsuits filed against businesses without an ADA compliant website have skyrocketed. These lawsuits have forced many businesses to convert or build their websites with ADA compliance in mind, many proactively. As a direct result of this, the percentage of websites that meet even minimal ADA compliance have dramatically increased. While the legitimacy of some of these lawsuits are certainly suspect with many of them filed by “professional plaintiffs” using cookie-cutter complaints, the effect they’ve had improving the online lives of people with disabilities is certainly not.

Initially it was mostly government agencies and larger corporations being targeted for such lawsuits but recently even smaller businesses have found themselves in court. The bottomline is that if your website fails to meet the standards of Title III it is in violation of the ADA and you could become the target of one of these increasingly common lawsuits.

Does Every Websites Need to be ADA Compliant?

While one might logically assume that if one website is legally required to be ADA compliant then they all are… however that’s not the case. Perhaps the most bizarre part of how ADA compliance is being applied is which businesses are, and are not required to comply. The courts have ruled that only businesses that operate a physical brick-and-mortar location are required to make their websites ADA compliant. So while it might sound strange, major corporations like as Facebook, Google or Amazon are not technically required to have an ADA compliant website because they exist only online — while the local mom-and-pop business down the street is required to comply. Other entities such as private clubs and religious organizations are also currently considered except.

However, even if you are running a website that is technically except don’t let that lure you into a false sense of security. Lawsuits have been challenging this interpretation and it is only a matter of time before the courts close the loophole for good and require all websites, no matter if they have a physical location or not, to be ADA compliant.

What Makes a Website ADA Compliant?

While it is clearly established that a website must be ADA complaint, what actually makes a website ADA compliant isn’t… As if things weren’t complicated enough. Since the law predates websites and because online technology changes so quickly, there currently is no surefire checklist for ADA compliance and what guidelines that do exist will probably change; meaning what makes a website ADA compliant today might not in the future. Hopefully the courts will eventual sort this out by clarifying the standards for everyone but for now, things are in flux.

So as a business owner what should you do in the meantime? The most reliable place to look for guidance is Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (or WCAG) — these are a set of technical standards created by The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) in conjunction with various other groups for the purpose of improving website accessibility for all, including disabled people. These guidelines have become the de facto standard for both the courts as well as web developers, so it is definitely the standard you should follow.

What are the Current WCAG Standards?

As of 2020, the most recent version of these technical standards is WCAG 2.1 which became the W3C recommendation in June 2018. It contains a total 13 guidelines falling under 4 different categories:

  1. Perceivable: This category deals with presenting content and media in alternative and adaptable ways by providing text alternatives for any non-text content such as images, alternatives for time-based media like video, ensuring text is readable, and that scaling font-sizes won’t break the page layout.
  2. Operable: This deals with the functionality of websites by ensuring users can navigate the page solely from a keyboard, providing controls for moving elements, labeling sections so users can find/know where content is located, and avoiding things known to cause seizures.
  3. Understandable: The purpose of this category is to make sure that all webpages use logical functionality with navigation that is consistent/predicable across the entire website, inputs that include instructions on how to use them, and that the language of the page is identifiable.
  4. Robust: The most technical category; this focuses on making sure the website has been built with universally recognized code that has been validated, contains no errors and that it is compatible with current/future browsers including assistive technologies used by disabled people.

Issues with website ADA compliance are broken up into errors and alerts. Errors must be fixed for a website to become certified complaint. Alerts on the other hand do not have to be corrected for a website to become complaint but it is generally considered a good idea to address them if possible.

Is All ADA Compliance the Same?

The WCAG has also defined three levels of ADA compliance: A, AA, and AAA. Level A is the most basic level of website accessibility but will not protect you from a lawsuit. Level AAA is the highest and most comprehensive level but is unlikely suited for most businesses because of the strict requirements. Level AA is a happy medium between the two and is what the vast majority of businesses should strive for because it will protect you from a lawsuit and is flexible enough to be practical. Conformance for higher levels means conformance of the lower level standards as well (so level AAA compliance indicates level AA compliance and so on).

What are the Other Benefits of ADA Compliance?

Even if you are not concerned about a lawsuit, making your website ADA complaint is a good idea for many other reasons. The most obvious way is that it increases your target audience as millions of people around the world have some sort of disability and if your website is compliant they’ll be able to fully utilize it. Next, many of the techniques used to become ADA compliant are actually beneficial for SEO and could improve your websites page rank. Additionally, search engine robots crawl your website in a nearly identical way as screen readers do — thus making your web site screen reader friendly (a requirement of compliance) also makes it search engine friendly. Finally, it is the right things to do for not only your business but the visitors to your site, disabled or not.

Top-10 Things to Check for ADA Compliance:

While there are many things that need to be checked to see if your website meets WCAG 2.1 AA requirements — Here are the top-10 things you should look for when it comes to your websites ADA compliance:

  • All images must include a text-only alternative in the code by utilizing the ALT tag and large blocks of text should not be in image form. Since a visually impaired person cannot see a photo, a text description of it should be included for their benefit. Purely decorative images that do not contain any relevant content and aren’t interactive are exempt from this requirement but they still should have a null ALT tag.
  • Text must be meet a minimum contrast ratio. Basically the color of the text and the color of the background should have enough contrast between them for maximum readability; with black text on a white background (and vice-versa) being the most readable.
  • The website can be easily navigated using only keyboard inputs and that a skip navigation button is included. Since using a mouse requires sight, keyboard navigation is the best alternative; unfortunately that method cannot easily jump to the content area so adding a “skip navigation” option is essential for ease-of-use.
  • The website is compatible with all current and future browsers and screen reader software.
  • Make sure that page text is a large enough font-size and that it can be scaled up to 200% without causing horizontal scrolling, breaking the design layout or becoming unreadable.
  • Adding text captions or including transcripts for all video and audio on the web site (including YouTube videos).
  • Make sure all pages and sections are clearly labeled and easily understood so users can easily find and locate the content they’re looking for quickly.
  • If the there are animated or moving elements on your site, make sure they are visible long enough so they can be read and include controls are so they can be paused.
  • All inputs (such as email contact forms, signup forms, login screens, checkouts, etc) must include detailed instructions and labels so they can be easily understood and utilized.
  • Make sure that all downloadable files available on your website follow the same ADA standards. This includes PDF files which are without a doubt the biggest concern and headache with making any website compliant. I would advise removing any and all PDF’s instead of attempting to convert them since that is an extremely expensive and time-consuming process. You can choose to make downloadable files available by request only to bypass this requirement.

How Can I Tell if My Website Is ADA Compliant?

As you can see, the world of website compliance can be very confusing and is quickly evolving. So the best way to know if your website is ADA compliant to the current WCAG 2.1 level AA standards is by having each and every page reviewed by a web design expert — make sure they are trained and familiar with the WCAG technical guidelines of ADA compliance.

At The Rusty Pixel we have extensive experience in both developing new websites and converting existing websites so they are certified ADA complaint. If you have any questions or concerns about your websites current compliance level, please don’t hesitate to contact us so we review it for you. Don’t wait until a lawsuit has been filed before acting.

Disclaimer: I am a web designer and not an attorney. Therefore the information in this post is merely my opinion and should not be used or taken as legal advice. If you do require legal advice you should speak with an attorney immediately. Additionally, the world of ADA compliance and web design is ever changing, thus the information included in this post could be out-of-date depending on when you are reading it.