What Does ADA Compliance Mean for My Website?

Last updated: 6/21/2019

What is ADA compliance?
What does the ADA say about websites?
Is ADA compliance mandatory for my website?
What part does WCAG 2.1 play in ADA compliance?

As organizations around the world scramble to bring their sites into compliance with the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), focus on other, preexisting accessibility regulations has also intensified. The United States’ Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is one of the most visible and one of the most complicated pieces of legislation in the sphere of accessibility. Let’s look at some of the ins and outs of what an ADA compliant website means today.

What is ADA compliance?

The Americans with Disabilities Act was instituted in 1990 in an effort to end discrimination based on differing abilities. Drawing heavily from the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which established protections against discrimination based on race, religion, sex or national origin, the ADA went a step further by requiring organizations to provide “reasonable accommodations” to employees with disabilities.

This was a fairly revolutionary addition that led to the widespread adoption of wheelchair access ramps, accessible restroom facilities, and many other equal-access accommodations that have become a regular part of most American workplaces. In 1990, however, legislators had no way of knowing that the then-infant internet would soon become not just a key element of doing business, but the very backbone of global commerce.

What does the ADA say about websites?

The ADA’s relationship with websites has been a complicated and often confusing story. The ADA does not explicitly address online compliance, even after undergoing several amendments in the far more web-oriented era of 2008. With no specific coverage under the law, it usually falls to the courts to determine how ADA standards apply to websites—or whether they do at all.

Title III of the ADA requires that every owner, lessor, or operator of a “place of public accommodation” provide equal access to users who meet ADA standards for disability. With roughly 1.66 billion people around the world making online purchases in 2017, one might reasonably presume that this concept extends to websites, but from a legal standpoint, there is a surprising amount of grey area.

Various courts around America have ruled that commercial websites are places of public accommodation and thus subject to ADA rules. Other cases have concluded that websites are bound by ADA regulations if there is a close “nexus” between the site and a physical location, the most famous example being the ruling against the Winn-Dixie supermarket chain for not making its site accessible to users with low vision. Other courts have decided that the ADA as written simply does not offer any protections for online users. With no overarching federal rules in place, it’s difficult to make a definitive statement about whether or not any given website is governed by ADA accessibility rules.

Further complicating the issue, the U.S. recently appeared to be on the verge of adopting more comprehensive accessibility requirements. Federal regulations slated to go into effect in January 2018 would have held federal websites to the standards of WCAG 2.0 Level AA, the set of guidelines that provide the basis for online accessibility rules for most of Europe and many other nations around the world. The current administration, however, has withdrawn this requirement as part of a general push toward deregulation, leaving the online applications of the ADA as murky as ever.

Is ADA compliance mandatory for my website?

As you’ve probably figured out by now, the answer is no, because it’s not at all clear how or even if ADA rules will be applied to any particular website. Still, it’s generally a good idea to err on the side of caution. Many states have adopted their own accessibility laws, and the volume of accessibility-related lawsuits filed against websites has ballooned in recent years. Plaintiffs have been more successful in these suits than ever before. With no clearly defined regulations to follow, it is probably not worth it for most companies to gamble that a court will rule in their favor.

So, without a clear set of accessibility regulations to comply with, how can you tell if your website is compliant? The best measure available is the aforementioned WCAG 2.0 Level AA guidelines. WCAG standards have been the guiding accessibility principle in the European Union and other countries since 1999, with the most recent update taking effect in Spring of 2018. While WCAG is a set of recommended actions rather than enforceable legislation, it forms the backbone of many online accessibility laws around the world and offers a strong model for any American organization striving to provide equal access for all users.

What part does WCAG 2.1 play in ADA compliance?

The WCAG guidelines were updated from version 2.0 to 2.1 in June 2018. The updates in 2.1 cover changes in technology that have occurred since the previous version, and also address areas that were underrepresented in 2.0. What does this mean for you? Not a lot right now. The compliance level targeted is still WCAG 2.0 Level AA, and the 2.1 success criteria are in addition to those already existing in 2.0.

We’ve covered WCAG guidelines at length in a number of other articles, but here’s a quick rundown of the basic principles for maintaining a WCAG and ADA compliant website.

Levels of compliance

WCAG guidelines break accessibility issues down into three levels. Level A issues are the most urgent and include problems that can severely limit a disabled visitor’s ability to navigate or use the website. Level AA issues tend to be more rooted in functionality, addressing areas where improvement is needed to give disabled users the full experience of a site. (Level AA is considered the target standard for most commercial websites.) Level AAA issues are the highest standard, fine-tuning and expanding on issues identified as Level A and AA. While it is an excellent goal, full Level AAA compliance is likely beyond the reach of most websites.

Areas of focus

Accessibility issues are categorized in four distinct groups under WCAG guidelines. Conveniently, they can be summed up with the acronym P.O.U.R.

  • Perceivable issues are those that affect a user’s ability to find and process information on a website (for example, providing audio descriptions for video content).
  • Operable issues are those that impact a visitor’s ability to navigate and use a website (for example, ensuring that all site functions and navigation can be operated via keyboard-only commands).
  • Understandable issues concern a user’s ability to discern and comprehend all information and navigation on a website (for example, composing error messages that include a clear explanation of the error and direction for correcting it).
  • Robust issues involve a website’s ability to adapt and evolve to meet the changing needs of users with disabilities (for instance, testing compatibility with all leading screen readers and ensuring that those capabilities can be upgraded in the future).

While the impact of the Americans with Disabilities Act on online accessibility is likely to remain vague for the foreseeable future, there is no question that equal access is a major concern for users across America, and for the courts that serve those users. In lieu of a clear set of national guidelines, abiding by WCAG accessibility standards remains the best option for most organizations. It’s not just a smart way to avoid accessibility lawsuits and negative publicity—providing accessible solutions for all users is just the right thing to do.

 


Looking to automate your digital accessibility efforts? Siteimprove Accessibility identifies accessibility errors throughout your website based on WCAG Success Criteria. Manual testing is also available in certain markets.